Bringing Broadband Equity to the Forefront — #CivicTechBos, February 8, 2017

As technology progresses, our need for it becomes more and more apparent. The right to internet access is important in our advanced society, but access is still not guaranteed worldwide — or even in our city.

While the City of Boston has made incredible advancements to making the internet accessible, the need for high-speed internet access has never been so obvious. That’s why our upcoming Conversations in Civic Innovation event, held this Wednesday, is centered around broadband equity — a necessity that helps our students learn, to build small businesses and to enable residents to engage as citizens.

Anne Schwieger, Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate for the Boston Department of Innovation and Technology, will be speaking on this week’s panel, and sat down with us to explore broadband equity within the city — and the world.

What does equity mean to you?

To me, equity looks like the institutions of our civil society and government acting in a way that protects all of our rights and actively affirms and enables the ability of all among us to derive benefit from the educational, economic, and civic spheres of our world.

Digital equity will be achieved when all people have the digital skills, digital tools, and Internet connectivity that they need to engage with and continually evolve these civil society and government institutions so that they respect and affirm our rights to thrive as individuals and as communities in the 21st century.

In the context of our work on broadband and digital equity, our thought here is equity across the board as well as equity within specific areas such as equitable access to education opportunities, access to great jobs, access to healthcare — increasingly, that type of access depends upon great access to digital skills, connectivity and tools.

Our thought is that digital equity is (not the only), but one of the key foundational pieces to enabling equity in all other areas.

Why specifically broadband?

In the most basic sense, ‘broadband’ is a term ascribed to Internet service that meets or exceeds a given data transmission speed. It becomes super interesting when we begin to look at it from a human angle.

People need broadband Internet in the places where they live, work, learn, and engage in civic pursuits, etc to pursue the things that are important to them, their families, and communities.

Infrastructural elements of broadband, various types of broadband services providers, and the institutions that we work with and for to create the future are also part of this broadband ecosystem.  

What are some ways that we’re making technology accessible in the city of Boston? What are some steps that we can take?

Boston has had a commitment to digital equity for a long time. For over a decade, we’ve provided support to local organizations such as Technology Goes Home, we have worked hard to connect public buildings like schools and libraries to fiber. It’s something that the City is working to expand to all public schools as we speak.

Home broadband adoption is not at a level that we believe it should be — we need it to be at a higher level in order for people’s goals, family goals, community goals, and city goals to be actualized.

Home broadband adoption is not at a level that we believe it should be. Over 1 in 5 people in Boston do not have broadband in the home, primarily for reasons of cost. That’s approximately 140,000 people in a city of just under 670,00 people. We are working with a number of partners to facilitate people who do not presently have broadband in the home in accessing low-cost offerings.

Ultimately though, the reason that 1 in 5 people are not connected to broadband in the home stems in large part from the reality of the broadband market in Boston. For a long time there has not been the type competition to drive down prices. We are hopeful that recent and prospective changes to the Boston broadband market will create the array of high quality, affordable service offerings that will serve the needs of all Bostonians.

The broadband market in Boston is shifting from 90% of households having a single choice of broadband service provider to an increasing number having 2 or more options. Our goal is for every household and business in Boston to have 2 or more options of wireline or fixed wireless service. The ‘or more’ is key there. It’s a pretty exciting time for broadband in Boston, and we’re really pleased that there is a community of providers that seem to be committed to offering services that households and businesses need, increasingly at a price point that is affordable for more people. A recent article in the Boston Globe took at look at recent changes in the Boston broadband market.

While not itself a regulator of broadband services, the City believes it has a role to play in enabling a broadband marketplace that works for all Bostonians. One thing we are very focused on is looking at ways to streamline processes and permitting where possible and making city owned assets such as shadow conduit more available to broadband service providers. This can decrease their cost of expanding service and conceivably bring greater broadband choice to all Bostonians more quickly. Here is a publicly available map of city owned shadow conduit.

I think that there is an ethos of shared ownership running through a lot of our broadband and digital equity work citywide, and this allows our priorities to be reflected in the day-to-day work that we do with one another across many departments. Here’s an article with info about the ways that colleagues across the City of Boston have collaborated on broadband and digital equity initiatives.

What should we discuss on February 8?

I would love to hear what the audience and panelists think the city can do and what they think they can do that perhaps they aren’t already doing to contribute to and enable outcomes we’re all committed to. The City of Cambridge has a broadband task force; we have a metro area that more or less is all facing similar challenges. What can we do to learn from each other? We basically have a shared metro-wide workforce, where someone lives in Cambridge and work in Boston or vice versa. We depend upon great connectivity metro-wide to reach our own goals. This is an area that is good for everyone. It would be interesting to see how people think municipalities ought to work together on some of these goals. Theo Hanna would be a great person to talk about that, because Tech Goes Home is starting to work with community organizations in Cambridge.

Join us Wednesday, February 8, from 5:30pm-8:30pm at Roxbury Innovation Center. RSVP here and join the conversation online by following @MSNewEngland and @VentureCafe and using the hashtag #CivicTechBos.

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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