Gateway Cities battle the digital divide

Gateway Cities Journal

Gateway Cities battle the digital divide

At this point last summer, Gateway City educators were furiously at work trying to ensure that all students would have computers and reliable internet service when school resumed in the fall. Their herculean efforts demonstrated that we can temporarily narrow the divide, but a lot of work remains to find durable solutions to this multifaceted problem.

Recent analysis by MAPC provides a new understanding of just how serious the challenge is from an access perspective. About 20 percent of households in Chelsea, Everett, and Revere lack internet service, which is right around the Gateway City average MassINC estimated in a policy brief last year. However, MAPC demonstrated that the problem is far worse by digging into data from Microsoft. Among households that do have internet in these communities, between 40 and 50 percent aren’t getting broadband speeds. The reasons are varied: Some live in apartment buildings with old wiring. Others have outdated routers, which is particularly troubling because they’re generally paying a significant monthly fee to rent equipment that can’t accommodate their internet plan’s top speed.

In the future, Gateway Cities should have a clearer picture of where high-speed internet isn’t reaching residents. With leadership from the ACLU and Pittsfield Senator Adam Hinds, the recently passed state budget includes provisions that will enable the state’s Department of Telecommunications and Cable to collect basic information about internet speeds and cost at each address.

This data will be valuable, but Gateway Cities are already taking aggressive action. With help from MAPC, Chelsea and Revere are bringing stakeholders together to fashion a comprehensive digital equity plan. In Essex County, a new digital equity coalition with 65 members has formed. Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF) is leading the charge with a $2 million grant program. They have also brought in Tech Goes Home, a Boston-based nonprofit that partners with community organizations to provide digital literacy services. With ECCF funding, thousands of residents in six Gateway Cities (Haverhill, Lawrence, Lynn, Methuen, Peabody, and Salem) will have access to this much-needed support.

A number of Gateway Cities are also involved in innovative efforts to lay fiberoptic networks that will give residents more affordable high-speed internet service. Quincy is looking to build a publicly-owned open access network that will lower costs and improve service by facilitating competition. To run this network on overhead wires, the city must negotiate with the utility pole owners. Salem is avoiding this challenge by digging “micro-trenches” and laying fiber under the roads. The private company SiFi Networks will shoulder the expense and lease the network out to providers to encourage competition.

The economics of these projects may be more favorable in Salem and Quincy than other Gateways with larger numbers of low-income households. However, recovery resources can be deployed to help subsidize these infrastructure costs. Cities can also use these funds to purchase devices and provide digital literacy training. And it looks like the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill advancing in the Senate will include billions more to tackle the digital divide. For Gateway City educators and other leaders on the frontlines of this fight, this is all welcome news. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to beat back the digital divide and keep it closed for good.

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