Wu Shares Next Steps for a More Connected Boston

Mayor Michelle Wu shared the results of a comprehensive digital equity assessment which will inform the development of a plan to build a more connected Boston, expand digital services, and ensure all residents thrive with improved access to digital technologies. This digital equity plan will drive Boston’s work to connect every family to digital services and opportunity.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, 32,000 Boston households did not have broadband access. The pandemic reinforced the importance of high speed internet, necessary for conferencing systems and other bandwidth intensive services (currently measured on a federal level as 25 megabits for download and 3 megabits for upload). This digital divide reinforces inequalities across Boston as access to broadband is critical for residents to study or work remotely, access telehealth and government services, and stay connected with their communities. 

“Digital access to education, opportunity, healthcare, and government services enable our communities to thrive,” said Mayor Michelle Wu. “We must work to improve our understanding of the gaps that some of our neighbors experience, and bridge those gaps.”

“Having access to the internet and the knowledge of how to use digital resources are crucial for our residents, immigrant neighbors, Boston Housing Authority residents, and communities of color to engage in everyday life, and it is important that we ensure internet access and digital equity for everyone,” said City Council President Ed Flynn. “I want to thank Mayor Wu and her Administration for their work in advancing digital equity. I’m committed to working with everyone on bridging the Digital Divide.”

“I’m proud that the Boston City Council proactively funded this study and also recently dedicated $2 million in American Rescue Plan funds to programs to improve digital equity across all our communities,” said Councilor Kenzie Bok, chair of the Committee on City Services and Innovation Technology. “Access to the internet is not an optional amenity that should be rationed by ability to pay: it is an essential utility for work, school, and civic participation for every Bostonian.”

The digital equity assessment, Analysis of Broadband Availability, Digital Equity Programs, and Fiber Build Costs, prepared for the City by CTC Technology and Energy (CTC) identified that in the past decade Boston residents have gained increased access to different internet service providers. This increase in options has led to higher quality and lower costs given the same level of connectivity. The assessment also notes that affordability, quality of service, skills and attitudes continue to present gaps for some communities, especially households that already require housing support or face other barriers. This assessment has informed the City’s current initiatives in the short term and will guide the City’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) next steps to improve data around existing digital gaps and needs. An executive summary of the report is available here.

Based on the findings of the assessment, the City will create a digital equity plan to identify digital needs and opportunities of Boston’s communities, as well as grow existing programs and evaluate their impact Citywide. The plan will provide a crucial framework to remove barriers around digital access and help give all Boston residents the opportunity to thrive. The City will engage residents, service providers, and other key partners to develop the plan, which will guide the City’s digital equity work across departments and be shared with the state as it develops its digital equity plan.

“At the beginning of the pandemic about 32,000 households did not have broadband access. Today 30,000 households in Boston have been enrolled in new federal broadband benefits available through the Affordable Connectivity Program,” said Chief Information Officer Santiago Garces. “Since May of this year our team has worked to enroll almost 10,000 households through close partnership with service providers and community organizations. We have more work ahead, especially as we work to make digital access more resilient to changing circumstances as we saw during the pandemic.”

The City intends to select a partner to develop a digital equity survey that will be used as a key mechanism moving forward to more consistently engage Boston residents around their digital access. The survey aims to identify areas of need in specific communities and serve as a foundation for the City to work collaboratively to address gaps with those groups. The survey will be designed and delivered throughout the next year.

The Department of Information Technology (DoIT) is focused on engaging residents around access to digital tools and connectivity, expanding existing programming, and launching new initiatives to boldly address digital gaps. 

In February, Mayor Wu and Senator Ed Markey announced an investment of over $12 million to bring digital equity and inclusion to nearly 23,000 Boston public housing residents, library users, and school-age families through the Long Term Lending program. The program bridges the digital divide by providing free access to 6,200 Chromebook laptops and 3,000 Wi-Fi routers, supported through funding from the federal Emergency Connectivity Fund. The Boston Public Library, Boston Housing Authority, and over 20 community partners have distributed over 7,000 of these devices to Boston residents. BPL patrons can request a Chromebook at www.bpl.org/long-term-lending/. 

The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a federal program providing $14.2 billion to expand broadband affordability. ACP provides eligible households with a subsidy for broadband service ($30/month) and up to $100 in a one-time discount for a digital device. The program was funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Acts (IIJA) in 2021, with the strong support of Senator Markey. Over 30,000 Boston households have signed up for broadband service and devices through ACP, including 10,000 that have been enrolled since May 2022 through close partnership with service providers and community organizations.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on inequities, and particularly on the digital divide that’s impacting our young learners. The Emergency Connectivity Fund delivered a long-overdue investment for Boston families and their students so that all of the Commonwealth’s kids have the opportunity to learn online and offline,” said Senator Ed Markey. “Across the country, millions of broadband connections have been made to students who once lacked access to a reliable internet connection at home. As this funding begins to run dry, we must fight to preserve these hard-earned gains by finding a permanent solution to the Homework Gap and keeping Boston’s students and their educators connected.”

Additionally, DoIT and CTC will launch two broadband speed tests. The free Speed Survey will gauge the upload and download speeds of Boston households. This survey is available on the City website here. The long-term Speed Test will continuously sample every neighborhood’s speed using a device that will be plugged into the routers of volunteer residents. Over the next several months, CTC will partner with the City and volunteers to monitor and collect data on the quality of broadband in every neighborhood and report those findings publicly. These tests will inform the City’s advocacy for consistent and reliable broadband quality and availability.

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