Digital access remains a problem

More than 1m Mass. residents don't have a fixed broadband connection

MORE THAN 1 MILLION people in Massachusetts don’t have a fixed broadband internet connection. More than 600,000 don’t have a desktop, laptop, or any computer at home. And many lack the skills and support to use those tools safely and effectively, even if they do have them.

The numbers are startling, but still don’t tell the full story, because we know data collected on digital access has notoriously failed to capture the full scale and scope of the problem. For residents who continue to lack access – disproportionately members of BIPOC communities, immigrants, low-income residents, and seniors, many living in our urban centers – it can be the difference between getting a well-paying job or remaining unemployed, between video chatting with a doctor or leaving an illness untreated, between connecting with family and friends or experiencing deepening isolation. The list goes on.

Progress in closing access gaps, though promising, remains incomplete. Massachusetts has made admirable investments in extending internet infrastructure to unserved towns, but according to the most recent US Census Bureau data, 15 percent of Massachusetts households lack a fixed broadband internet subscription, meaning hundreds of thousands of our neighbors still don’t have regular access to a service that has become difficult to live without. Further, even where internet infrastructure exists, affordability remains paramount. Research shows that low-income households are most likely to cite affordability constraints as a substantial barrier to in-home broadband adoption.

At the same time, a 2020 ACS report found 18 percent of households in Massachusetts lack a desktop or laptop computer, highlighting an even bigger problem around access to quality devices. In Massachusetts, 93 percent of those who lack home broadband and 95 percent of those who lack a computer at home live in urban areas. These gaps persist despite accelerated efforts during the pandemic to make the internet and devices more accessible to all. And, these challenges are only exacerbated by language barriers, service costs, and lack of access to skills training that prevent people from connecting to the digital world effectively, safely, and securely.

With policy priorities on Beacon Hill coming into focus, Gov. Maura Healey, together with our Senate and House leaders, must make closing the digital divide in Massachusetts through access, affordability, and skills training a critical piece of the agenda in order to truly and equitably connect our Commonwealth. In fact, the stated goals and promises each leader has laid out for our Commonwealth this legislative session – including in the areas of workforce development, housing, addressing social determinants of health, and improving early and higher educational access – are directly linked to one’s ability to participate in the digital world.

Our own research and experience demonstrates that people from historically underserved communities who gain access to devices, internet, and training, are much more likely to succeed economically, educationally, and socially. That means residents unlocking a new career, earning pay raises, tapping into widely used telehealth services, and parents having the skills to help their kids with core classes, homework assignments, and resources that are exclusively online. Unfortunately, these critical turning points remain out of reach for too many.

Thankfully, there are some early signs on Beacon Hill that this critical partnership between digital access and equitable policymaking is being taken seriously. As one of its first pieces of legislation, the Healey administration introduced a bonding bill that asks for $39.3 million in authorizations for community broadband and infrastructure – an investment that, if passed, could unlock matching funds from the federal government. Another bill would improve and expand equitable access to telehealth coverage options, which dramatically expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Successful collaboration between government leaders, the private sector, and non-profits can transform the lives of residents who have been systematically excluded from the digital world and improve digital inclusion for generations to come. Thankfully, we live in a Commonwealth where organizations stand at the ready to do this work – on the ground, in the community, neighbor-to-neighbor – to help level the playing field. After all, achieving true digital equity and closing the digital skills gap will require all of us.

That is why our state leaders must seize this opportunity – especially at a time when revenues continue to come in better than expected, federal investment remains strong, and experts are tempering their predictions of economic backsliding – to invest in the individuals and families that stand to gain the most from inclusion in the digital world.

In recent weeks, Healey announced that her administration is dedicated to prioritizing equity, rooting out the systemic barriers that have for too long existed in government as a result of policy decisions. What better way to start that work than by building on what’s already been done, passing the aforementioned legislation, and committing to prioritizing a reliable, sustainable link to digital opportunities – through access to devices, affordable internet, and training – for the hundreds of thousands of people in Massachusetts who don’t have that link today. By doing so, we collectively activate and facilitate a person’s ability to find the job they’ve always wanted, expand their socioeconomic future, build their business, say a virtual hello to a loved one for the first time in a long time, or simply finish their homework.

Tech Goes Home stands ready to work with the Healey administration, Senate and House lawmakers, and anyone willing to help in the fight to close the digital divide. Now, let’s get to work.

Dan Noyes is CEO of Tech Goes Home.