Who gets to be online? How Boston is studying the digital divide

The pandemic has put a spotlight on who has and doesn’t have access to the internet, computers and other necessary technologies for work or school. Advocates and pundits are calling it the digital divide, and Boston is launching a study to learn more about digital access across the city. Chief Information Officer Santi Garces joined GBH morning edition Hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to talk about the poll. This transcript has been edited lightly.

Jeremy Siegel: Before we get to this poll, how would you describe what digital justice and the digital divide are?

Saint Garces: We usually think that for someone to be connected, there must be three things: they must have access to the Internet, to a network; and having the right device to do the things they’re trying to do – so we’re trying to write the next great American novel, you probably can’t do it on an iPhone or a cell phone – and the last one that means, You must have the right skills to do the things you want to do.

And there are some basic skills surrounding basic computer skills. But as we find, over time, people require more specialized skills. They have to learn to program. They want to learn how to create their resumes. They want to interact with the government in a certain way. So in general we think that all of these things have to be true for a person to have the right digital experience.

Paris Alston: As Jeremy alluded to above, our lives have gone almost entirely digital during the pandemic with distance learning and working. At least that’s how we all tried to keep in touch. And we have learned that not everyone has the same Internet access, the same access to digital services. So what did you learn about digital access across the city from this survey you conducted of tens of thousands of households in Boston?

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Clothes: This is a problem that has evolved over time. As you mentioned, before the pandemic. Some people used to go to the library to socialize. They would go to a relative to use the internet. And as the pandemic forced people to stay at home, we’ve seen the definition of what digital access means change. So if you had a family computer, that might not have been enough, because when every child in the family went to school remotely and the parents worked remotely, the bandwidth requirements and device requirements changed. So it’s a problem set by the pandemic and continuously evolving.

In this study that we just published, we mainly looked at the availability of internet services. And the good thing is that over the past decade, Boston has worked really hard to increase the competition and availability of different ISPs. So 10 years ago in town you could mainly only get Comcast, and now you can get Comcast, Verizon, RCN, Stary and other services.

The good thing is that many of the things we’ve done over the past 10 years have helped make it easier for people to get high-quality, cheaper internet. But there’s still a subset of people that we know struggle, particularly around affordability. And for some people in particular who live in older buildings that live on social housing, the quality of even the wiring within those buildings can be substandard, and that’s preventing them from gaining the kind of experience that has become necessary during the pandemic to to be able to do video conferencing, telemedicine and other things. So while we’ve made a lot of progress, we know there’s still a gap we need to bridge and we need to be creative in how to address these challenges.

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Seal: There’s also the fact that there are still a number of people working from home, or schools that may have shifted more of their teaching work to digital platforms. So what can and is being done in Boston right now to increase digital justice?

Clothes: The first is that we have been working with some new programs that the federal government has made possible, including the Affordable Connectivity program. People can go to the site and learn more about it, but this allows eligible families to deduct $30 off their internet bill each month. And the quality of plans available to these families has improved significantly. So for many families, this means they can get free internet at home.

It just takes a little time to sign up with the ISP and then make sure you’re taking advantage. So this is something worth checking out. We begin planning how we will bridge the digital divide over the next five years. So if we think about what the remaining gap is, what strategies do we need to have in order to be adaptable? We’re kind of trying to understand what the new normal is and what the conditions are for people to thrive.

“We’re kind of trying to understand what the new normal is and what the conditions are for people to thrive.”

-Boston Chief Information Officer Santi Garces

Alston: I would also like to know where in town you live – how much does that affect your internet access?

Clothes: Part of this study, and what we’ve just released, is going to give people the ability to report internet speeds to us – to be able to do a sort of traditional internet speed test, but share their results with the city, with that we can work towards it. So at this point, based on the information we’ve gathered, we believe people should probably have about the same access, at least from the ISP. But as we mentioned earlier, there may be other things that give people different experiences. If your Wi-Fi router is older, people don’t think about it, they could keep that router for 20 years. Newer Wi-Fi routers are so much faster than the older Wi-Fi routers. So there are a number of things that must be true.

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We know that Verizon has expanded and that there are a few neighborhoods, particularly downtown and Chinatown, that this network has yet to reach. However, they plan an expansion to fill these gaps. So we think the ISPs usually have about the same level of access. And then there are other gaps that people might experience. But we will test and make sure we do spot checks in different neighborhoods and understand if what the vendors are telling us is the reality.