Are broadband subscribers in Dorchester getting what they pay for? Margaret McKenna, chair of the Boston Human Rights Commission, has her doubts, citing residents’ claims that Internet service in low-income neighborhoods is slower and less reliable than in the city’s affluent areas.
“Everybody I’ve ever talked to in Dorchester has this problem. It’s not a made-up issue,” McKenna said during a recent meeting of the commission. She plans to investigate further to see whether the stories she’s heard add up to a verifiable pattern.
Broadband providers who attended the virtual meeting May 19 said they strive to provide an equal level of service for all customers.
“You get what you pay for,” said Stephanie Lee, regional director of government affairs for Verizon.
But a skeptical McKenna said she wants to commission a study to determine whether broadband companies give every Boston neighborhood a fair shake.
The long-dormant Human Rights Commission, established in 1984 during the mayoral administration of Raymond Flynn, was reestablished last year by then-mayor Martin J. Walsh. Under the leadership McKenna, a civil rights attorney and former Suffolk University president, the commission has placed a high priority on closing the digital divide.
“A lot of it was because of COVID,” McKenna said of the focus on broadband. Internet access served as a lifeline during the national economic lockdown, and families with little or no Internet access couldn’t earn a living or educate their children.
In recent months, the commission’s meetings have addressed police reform, housing discrimination, and bias against immigrants. But nearly every meeting has also touched on the need to boost broadband access. “It has a huge discriminatory impact on people of color,” said McKenna, who regards universal Internet access as the next big civil rights issue.
The broadband companies said they’re doing everything they can to provide high-quality service to every neighborhood. Lee said Verizon has extended its Fios fiber network to about 70 percent of the city, including low-income neighborhoods. Indeed, Verizon is only now beginning to wire wealthy Beacon Hill and downtown Boston, Lee said, because their geographic complexity makes installation difficult.
Virginia Lam Abrams, senior vice president of the wireless broadband company Starry, said its service is accessible to about 400,000 Boston households, but is targeted to residents of large apartment buildings. Lam Abrams said the company’s growth has been hampered by deals between building owners and landline broadband providers. Where such deals exist, she said, Starry is often unable to compete.
Angela Holm, director of regulatory affairs for Comcast, said her company serves virtually all of Boston and upholds the same performance standards in all neighborhoods. When asked by McKenna whether Comcast provides an equal amount of network capacity in every neighborhood, Holm replied: “Our infrastructure is the same throughout the city. Nothing changes.”
Holm suggested that some users’ performance issues might be due to the quality of their equipment. Some broadband subscribers purchase their own routers instead of renting hardware from Comcast. Holm said that such routers might not be up to the highest technical standards.
Even so, from April 2020 to January 2021, McKenna said, only 62 percent of broadband households in Boston were getting download speeds matching the official federal standard of 25 megabits per second or greater. In other words, over a third of Boston’s Internet users have download speeds that fall short of true broadband performance. And many critics argue the federal 25-megabit standard is too slow, anyway.
Even in areas served by multiple providers, many low-income people don’t have access. McKenna cited commission research that found 16 percent of Boston households lack a broadband connection and 20 percent lack a personal computer. Holm said that the unconnected are mainly hindered by a lack of computer know-how and by low incomes, not by a failure of broadband companies to provide access.
McKenna hopes a new federal program will make a difference, by providing a $50 monthly subsidy to low-income households to pay for broadband service. People can sign up online at GetEmergencyBroadband.org, by calling 833-511-0311, or by contacting a broadband provider.