Voices of Change: Keeping Boston Connected

| Anne Schwieger, Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate for the Department of Innovation and Technology

Diversity and inclusion are critical underpinnings to our evolving culture at Microsoft and powerful bridges to the marketplace. We are inspired by the local leaders who make diversity a priority in their daily work. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, we’re honored to celebrate women in our community who are carrying out the mission of civic engagement, leadership and empowering other women.

— MSNE Staff


Cities are realizing that broadband is really an ecosystem — and that it needs to be addressed as such. There are infrastructural pieces of broadband, but there are also really human pieces of it. Mine is a new role for the City of Boston and there are a couple other cities in the US who have similar roles on a growing level. It’s important to note that these positions have become a natural extension of the longstanding commitment that many people have made in the broadband and digital equity space – people have been working for years on what could probably best be described as abject failure of both government and the private sector to ensure that all community members have access to this critical infrastructure.  I have the incredible opportunity to work in this type of role thanks to the many people who have worked very hard for years on the legal, policy, advocacy, and direct community action elements of the broadband challenges that cities face.  The blood, sweat, and tears of these people as well as the press that constituents are increasingly putting on cities to address our broken broadband ecosystems have heightened these issues to a level that we cannot ignore.    

I am a city planner by training.  In the most ideal version of how the profession is practiced, planners help manage change and make sure that the process by which change happens and the actual end product are equitable. Technology has hastened the pace of change in unprecedented ways.  In my role with the City, I get to be part of a big, awesome group of civil servants who are working to make sure that the changes to come in Boston shake out well for everyone.  My job is built in no small part on the premise that if all community members are not fully connected to true broadband internet in the places where we live, work, and learn this change is absolutely not going to reflect the hopes and dreams of all Bostonians.

I’m not a technologist by training at all.  I’m very much a person who tends to wonder, “How do these pieces fit together?” Sometimes, in the spaces where really important things need to be happening, the pieces don’t fall squarely into one department or professional domain.  It is sometimes the case that when nobody ‘owns’ the pieces, there is not yet a strong inclination to see if and how they fit together.  And my role helps with this — I get to work with incredible colleagues all across the City of Boston to figure out how we can make broadband better.  Four months into this job, I cannot think of a single thing I’ve worked on that involves fewer than two departments.  

One of the biggest challenges at hand is that there is not sufficient competition in the broadband market in Boston to enable all households and businesses to get a good quality product at a price that they can afford. We believe that creating competition for private investment in infrastructure will happen — not overnight, but we are doing a variety of things related to streamlining processes and permitting, making buildings broadband-ready, and meeting connectivity goals. We’re working on all of these fronts at once, to make sure that people have options and are able to fully leverage those options.  Otherwise, a lot of our other goals related to equity, innovation, and opportunity cannot be fully realized in a way that works for all Bostonians.  

Hmm.  How do I use technology?  Basically lots of emails and shared documents.  The way that technology enters my work most prominently is through collaboration and learning with colleagues.  This could be colleagues who take care of the infrastructural pieces of broadband that connect libraries, firehouses, schools, and police stations to BoNet, colleagues who lend their great expertise in data analysis and visualization to help us create strategies and set priorities in the broadband space, and colleagues who will help link up broadband and constituent engagement through the new City website that will launch later this year.  

Boston has a solid track record in the digital equity space. There’s a great organization called Tech Goes Home. They work with community members all over the city on digital skills, making sure people have access to hardware, and, of course, making sure people have internet access in their home. One of the biggest barriers we face — and that we’re working with a variety of partners to figure out solutions to — is the fact that there are not a lot of truly affordable broadband options in Boston. This is particularly problematic when we consider that According to the American Community Survey about 1 in 5 Bostonians are not connected to broadband in the home.   Broadband adoption in the US has actually dipped slightly. Meanwhile, adoption of smartphones has really picked up and is on par with home broadband adoption. We know broadband adoption in the home is not the only thing we should be looking at when it comes to digital inclusion and that smartphones have a very important role to play.  But they will not be the thing that allows kids to do all of their homework, engage with rich online content, allows adults to apply for jobs.

How can we as citizens help with your mission?

If we aren’t getting it right, tell us!  Ideally our missions should align.

Anne Schwieger works for the City of Boston Department of Innovation & Technology as Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate.  In this role she supports the City in creating a comprehensive broadband policy framework that addresses existing and new broadband  infrastructure and the ease with which Bostonians can use this infrastructure to harness the full power of internet connectivity to pursue educational, professional, health and wellness, and civic endeavors.  Anne also serves on the City of Cambridge Broadband Task Force and is the producer of Cambridge Broadband Matters on Cambridge Community Television.  She holds a Master in City Planning from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT and a BA in Biology and Society from Cornell University.

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