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.

There’s hope for real movement in the right direction: The ACLU of Massachusetts strongly supports language in the proposed budget that would require internet service providers (ISPs) to provide detailed information to the state about the services they offer to communities throughout the Commonwealth. It’s a no-brainer proposal; indeed, most states are already collecting this information, putting them and their economies at distinct advantages. The amendments—also outlined in Governor Baker’s proposed budget—would give necessary authority to the state’s Department of Telecommunications and Cable to require ISPs to provide the Department with basic information about internet speeds, cost, and company offerings at each residence and business in the state

Meet the Author

Kade Crockford

Technology for Liberty program director, American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
We know high-speed internet access is the present and the future; broadband has become even more integral to our everyday lives, connecting people to classrooms, work, medical care, public meetings, rallies, and more. Closing the digital divide in Massachusetts is a vital racial and economic justice issue. Massachusetts should seize the opportunity presented by Amendment 838 in the Senate budget, and ensure the language is included in the final package that lands on Governor Baker’s desk.

Kade Crockford is the Technology for Liberty program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts.