State officials have spent years expanding broadband access in rural communities. Now, their focus needs to turn to urban neighborhoods.
That’s the major takeaway from a new report funded by the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership and researched in collaboration with local think tank MassINC. The report underscores how large portions of cities such as Lawrence and Fall River still lack adequate broadband access — something that the Competitive Partnership members, some of the state’s most prominent corporate chief executives, say should be considered an essential utility.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say all of us felt that in 2022, having access and knowing how to use high-speed Internet in every home in Massachusetts is similar to having access to electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing,” said Partnership chairman Jeff Leiden, executive chairman at Vertex Pharmaceuticals. “You can almost think of it as a necessity these days.”
The report combines two sets of data: previously reported Census figures that show the number of homes without Internet service and newly reported figures from Microsoft and analyzed by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council showing the number of households that lack broadband-level speeds. Taken together, these numbers tell a startling story in many cities: 59 percent of homes in Chelsea lack adequate broadband service, for example, and 56 percent in Fall River. The numbers are also high in Springfield (54 percent)and Lawrence (50 percent), as well as Salem, New Bedford, and Pittsfield (all 48 percent). Boston is at 43 percent, compared with the state average of 34 percent.
While rural broadband efforts have focused on stringing wires through remote communities, urban broadband access can be a more complex issue. Many households in these cities have broadband lines running on their streets, but the report notes they might have inadequate wiring inside buildings, too many users on the same connection, or no ability to pay for a high-speed plan.
The report also raises the issue of inadequate competition: The average download speed is notably slower in communities with only one provider of broadband service (as defined by download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 Mbps).
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of digital access for everything from healthcare to school to shopping.
“We need these technologies now more than ever,” said Ben Forman, research director at MassINC. “Twenty years ago, you didn’t need access to information technology to access the best health services. Now you do.”
The report’s authors hope to take advantage of an influx of public broadband funds, including $50 million set aside by the state Legislature late last year to promote digital equity and increase broadband access and an estimated $500 million-plus over several years destined for Massachusetts from last year’s $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill.
Then there’s the new federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides $30 a month for low-income households for broadband bills. More targeted outreach is needed to help people overcome trust issues or fears of hidden charges levied by the telecom providers, the report says.
The report urges state officials to broaden the mission of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute beyond its initial charge of deploying rural broadband lines, to address digital inequities across the state and to craft a statewide digital equity plan that leverages private-sector expertise and coordinates regional efforts. The authors want the $50 million digital equity fund to provide planning grants to local community groups and to identify gaps in service from Internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon. And they float the idea of a long-term funding model, such as a user service fee on Internet bills or a surcharge on device purchases.
Rebecca Davis, chief operating officer at the partnership, said several of her group’s member companies are eager to engage on this issue and have already started conversations about improving broadband coverage. She hopes the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-public agency that oversees the Mass. Broadband Institute, can add staff to ensure this work can be done in a comprehensive manner.
“This is the time to do it,” Leiden said. “There has been a huge amount of federal funding that’s been devoted toward this, coming out of the pandemic. ... This is the time when the money and the commitment are going to be there.”