Tracking the digital divide
We can't close it without first documenting it
OVER THE PAST YEAR, schools, workplaces, health care providers, and other basic services have moved online. In doing so, the centrality of the internet to modern life became crystal clear to everyone in the country. But for people and families without broadband access, the pandemic has only exposed and exacerbated the digital divide—putting resources like telework, virtual learning, and telehealth out of reach for millions of people.
Even before the pandemic, many people lacked access to high-speed broadband across Massachusetts. According to the ACLU of Massachusetts Data for Justice project, Census estimates show that more than 1 million Massachusetts residents—about 15 percent of the state’s population—do not have a fixed broadband internet connection. Our Census analysis also shows that internet and computer access correlate with income, such that lower income communities are disproportionately left unconnected.
Unfortunately, existing data—cobbled together from dated Census information and other sources—does not show the full picture. For example, the ACLU’s analysis shows that over 50 percent of people in certain Census blocks in the Springfield area lack broadband access. But we don’t know why. Are people living in buildings that are not yet serviced by broadband, or can they simply not afford the cost? How many internet companies serve those addresses? And how much do those companies charge, for what internet speeds? Do those companies offer those addresses unlimited data packages, or are there caps? Are people in those communities offered different rates than people in other communities?
Without this information, it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of Massachusetts’ digital divide—and that dearth of knowledge hinders our government’s ability to ensure broadband access across the state. It’s simple: You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and right now, we aren’t measuring much of anything. Massachusetts must improve data collection and transparency to ensure every local business and resident has access to high-speed, affordable broadband internet.
Kade Crockford is the Technology for Liberty program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts.