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

The pandemic put a spotlight on who does and doesn’t have access to Internet, computers and other necessary technology for work or school. Advocates and experts call 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’s Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to talk about the survey. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Jeremy Siegel: Before we get into this survey, how would you describe what digital equity and the digital divide is?
Santi Garces: We typically think that there’s three things that need to be true for someone to be connected: They need to have access to the Internet, to a network; and to have the right device to do the things that 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 thing is, you need to have the right skills to be able to do the things that you want to do.

And there’s some basic skills around basic computer literacy. But as we find out, as time goes by, people need more specialized skills. They need to learn how to program. They want to learn how to do their resumes. They want to interact with government in a particular way. So generally we think about all of those things need to be true for a person to have the right digital experience.
Paris Alston: As Jeremy alluded to at the top, our lives became almost completely digital during the pandemic with remote schooling and work. It was the way that we all tried to stay connected, at least. And one thing we learned in doing so was that everyone did not have the same Internet access, the same access to digital services. So in this survey that you did of tens of thousands of households in Boston, what did you learn about digital access citywide?
Garces: This is a problem that has evolved over time. As you mentioned, prior to the pandemic. Some people used to go to the library to get connected. They would go to a relative to use the Internet. And when the pandemic forced people to stay at home, we saw that the definition of what digital access meant changed. So if you had a family computer, that might not have been enough, because if every kid in the family was going to school remotely and the parents were going to work remotely, the needs for bandwidth changed, the needs for devices changed. So it’s a problem that has been set by the pandemic and that has continuously evolved.
In this study that we just released, that we were looking at primarily the availability of Internet service. And the good thing is, over the past decade, Boston has worked really hard to increase the competition and the availability of different Internet providers. So 10 years ago in the city, you’d primarily be able to only get Comcast and now you’re able to get Comcast, Verizon, RCN, Stary and other services.
The good thing is a lot of the things that we have been doing for the past 10 years helped make it easier for people to get high quality and lower-cost Internet. But there’s still a subset of people that we know struggle, particularly around affordability. And especially for some people that live in older buildings, that live in subsidized housing, the quality of even the wiring inside of those buildings might be substandard, and that prevents them from having the kind of experience that became needed during the pandemic of being able to do video conferencing, telehealth and other things. So even though we’ve had a lot of progress, we know that there’s still a gap that we need to bridge and we need to be creative around how to tackle those challenges.
Siegel: There’s also the fact that, you know, there are still a number of people who are working from home, or schools that might have shifted more of their classroom work on to digital platforms. So what can and is being done in Boston right now to increase digital equity?
Garces: The first thing is we’ve been working in partnership with some new programs that the federal government has enabled, including the Affordable Connectivity Program. People can go to the website and find out more about it, but this basically allows eligible families to get $30 off of their Internet bill every month. And the quality of the plans that are available for those families has increased substantially. So for a lot of families, that means that they can get free Internet at home.
It just takes a little bit of time to enroll in the Internet provider and then making sure that you’re getting the benefit. So that’s something that’s worth checking out. We’re starting the planning process for how we bridge the digital divide in the next five years. So thinking about what is the gap it remains, what are the strategies that 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 that people have in order to connect moving forward.

Alston: I’m also curious about where you live in the city — how much does that determine your Internet access?
Garces: Part of this study and what we just released will give people the possibility of reporting to us Internet speeds — to be able to do kind of like the traditional Internet speed test, but sharing their results with the city so that we can advocate. So we believe at this point, based on the information that we collected, that people should probably have roughly the same access, at least from the Internet service provider. But as we mentioned, there might be other things that give people different experiences. If your Wi-Fi router is older, it’s the kind of thing that people don’t think about, they might have been holding on to that router for 20 years. Newer Wi-Fi routers are so much faster than the older Wi-Fi routers. So there’s a number of things that that need to be true.
We know that Verizon has been expanding and that there’s a couple of neighborhoods, especially downtown and Chinatown, where that network hasn’t reached yet. But they plan on expanding to cover those gaps. So typically, we think that from the Internet service providers, probably roughly about the same level of access. And then there’s other gaps that people might be experiencing. But we’re going to test, and we’re going to make sure that we sample across different neighborhoods and understand if what the providers are telling us kind of matches the reality.
Morning Edition co-hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel bring a whole new vibe to mornings. Sign up for their newsletter, "The Wake Up," landing in your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning.
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Paris Alston is co-host of Morning Edition at GBH News.
Jeremy Siegel is co-host of Morning Edition at GBH News.

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