Massachusetts’ digital divide reveals complex problems and a simple solution

By Nidavirani (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By Chloe Liu
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – When attendance started dropping off at the end of every month at an Everett school, no one knew why.

Then the realization hit. Since school was still online, many parents were using their data plans to connect their children to their classrooms due to poor internet access – and the data would run out by the time the last week of the month rolled around. 

Internet access isn’t the only hindrance for many households. In a May 2020 report, MassINC found that nearly 30,000 gateway city households with school-age children do not have a laptop or desktop computer at home. 

The digital divide in Massachusetts has long existed, but these issues were only further emphasized as COVID-19 came along. When schools were forced into adapting to online teaching, the new way of learning revealed both hardware and software gaps for local families. 

MassINC Research Director Benjamin Forman said the problem began when students didn’t have computers for school, which led to some relief when there was a push for schools to purchase Chromebooks and deliver them to students. 

However, Forman said this seeming step forward might be reversed as children return to the classroom – most school districts aren’t allowing devices to go home anymore.  

“I think we’ve kind of regressed as there isn’t really a plan right now to have laptops at home for our students,” Forman said. “So whether it’s the summer or whether it’s the weekends, and then come families now don’t have the computers in the house that they did have when we were all remote.”

The struggles of Massachusetts students highlight the often-crumbling digital infrastructure in the state – or in some areas, a lack of one. 

Massachusetts Area Planning Council Digital Services Manager Ryan Kelly works with many local communities to address the digital divide in connection, increase digital literacy, and improve digital infrastructure. 

The clash between the private and public sector is a large contributor to the holdup in Massachusetts’ digital advancement, Kelly said. 

The results of this tension are reflected in the regional inequality between the western and eastern parts. While both areas of the state struggle with reliability and affordability, Western Massachusetts also struggles with the additional issue of accessibility. 

There are currently only a  handful of internet providers in Eastern Massachusetts, including Verizon and Comcast, and other providers don’t see a financial benefit to building their system due to low revenue, Kelly said. Western Massachusetts is in a similar boat but face even fewer plan options from these providers. 

The regional differences are so extreme in certain circumstances that someone may have access to a plan that their neighbor who lives across the street doesn’t, Kelly said. 

Due to the market control from large corporate providers, prices for broadband plans aren’t competitive, meaning that they become unaffordable especially for the lower income families in the more rural parts of the state and in many gateway cities. 

Forman identified another regional disparity that can often be overlooked: the northern and southern parts of the state. However, what sets these two ends of the commonwealth apart isn’t necessarily the quantity of resources, but more often the initiatives that are being taken by local leaders. 

“I think there could be some unevenness, like we see a lot of work going on in Essex County … but not as much on the South Coast right now,” Forman said. “If somebody hasn’t stood up to lead on this community, there isn’t anybody who’s been charged with doing the work.”

Forman pointed to Stratton Lloyd, the Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer at the Essex County Community Foundation, as one of the local leaders taking charge. The ECCF is focused on the 34 cities and towns of Essex County. 

An October 2020 report from the ECCF found that one out of every five households lack a basic computer and around 160,000 people live without fixed broadband. 

Since the early days of the pandemic, Lloyd and his team have dived into finding a systems-based approach towards confronting large issues like the digital divide. The team at ECCF treat digital equity as a multidimensional issue, per the foundation, that focuses on four major areas: access, equipment, privacy, and training. 

“We’ve established a strategy and a philosophy and an approach,” Lloyd said, “that says, ‘How can we pull philanthropic money in and outside the county to inspire collaboration and inspire collective action?”

To tackle access, the ECCF has worked with local organizations on several projects, including an internet access initiative that will serve nearly 10,000 people in the county with free internet, Lloyd said. 

The team is also identifying ways to refurbish and deliver equipment to community members in need, per Lloyd, and have already deployed over 1,000 refurbished machines with the goal of another 1,000 in the next couple months.  

When it comes to digital literacy, Lloyd said the ECCF is hoping to train over 800 workers as part of a digital literacy program that takes a county-wide collective action approach. The program is in partnership with Tech Goes Home, which Lloyd described as a “leader in digital education.” 

But these programs don’t come without challenges, Lloyd said, with one being finding a balance in the process of collaboration, especially with a systems-based approach. 

“Collaborations fail if people aren’t willing to invest in that sort of relational infrastructure that’s required for those collaborations to work,” Lloyd said. “One plus one can equal five … if you bring people together, they can come up with new designs, new solutions, new opportunities that they’ve never been able to do before.”

Furthermore, changing the mental mindset of the community is vital to making digital progress, Lloyd said, including making sure leaders and policymakers understand that investments are necessary and must be made effectively. 

The state’s digital needs have not gone unnoticed by the Massachusetts Legislature, as a slew of related bills sit before the Committee on Information Technology, the Internet, and Cybersecurity.

Additionally, $50 million of the recently passed Massachusetts American Rescue Plan Act money has been carved out by lawmakers for internet and broadband access and another $15 million is dedicated to cybersecurity workforce training. 

Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, has long been an advocate for equity and equality in digital infrastructure. Lesser stressed that access to the internet is “a core service and a core public good” like water and electricity, a concept that needs to be made clear to society. 

Lesser said a combination of the private sector’s influence and a lack of social awareness on the severity of the state’s digital divide is holding the state back from making broadband access a public necessity. 

“There’s certainly politics, there is influence from lobbying and from big business, so you’re always going to have that component,” Lesser said. “I think there is a degree to which it’s almost invisible to a lot of people [on] just how society really is.” 

Forman said he believes the Legislature is doing their work, but a bigger policy issue is the lack of transparency from the private sector, a problem that Kelly also raised. 

“We don’t know the speeds that people are getting in their households,” Forman said. “I think that is kind of the number one thing, is getting the data to understand what investments need to be made in the infrastructure.” 

Since most broadband systems are owned and operated by private corporations, many have opted to keep their data private, disabling local agencies from making analyses. As a result, Forman said, people are “pointing fingers back and forth.” 

Long-term investments are just as important as the short-term solutions, but local agencies are unable to make those decisions unless data transparency is achieved, Kelly said. 

“There’s a lot to still unpack,” Kelly said.

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