As we plan for a just and equitable recovery, we must do more than just respond to short-term crises – we need a bold vision and a clear plan to deliver digital equity for all. Now is the moment to build a connected city and transform our systems so every learner, worker, and family can thrive.
Nearly 15% of households in Boston do not have a subscription to Internet service at home, and more than 32,000 households have no Internet access at all. But these digital gaps are concentrated in census tracts home to mostly Black, Latinx, and immigrant residents. From children unable to complete their homework, to parents cut off from their job search and grandparents facing isolation, the digital divide reinforces racial and economic inequities across our city, especially during this pandemic.
Our five-part Digital Equity Plan charts a framework to dismantle these structural inequities and give all Boston residents the opportunity to thrive.
Deliver Technology for Education and Economic Opportunity
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced that thousands of Boston children and their families do not have access to reliable Internet connectivity and technology needed for lifelong learning – particularly in our Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities. Businesses scrambled to transition their operations online overnight. Seniors and adult learners face an increasingly digital landscape. Making Boston a city for everyone means delivering the support and access to operate in the digital world.
Breaking down silos across city departments to create digital resource and learning hubs through our schools, libraries, and community centers for all BPS students and their families, adult learners, seniors, job seekers and aspiring entrepreneurs to access broadband, technology, and digital skills training;
Fostering partnerships through dedicated City leadership and staffing to meet the unique needs of small businesses, including affordable Internet access, operational technology upgrades, and the digital skills that small business owners need to thrive in a rapidly evolving online world;
Prioritizing ongoing communication about digital equity issues with residents across each neighborhood, and coordinate with non-profit organizations and city departments, such as the Department of Innovation and Technology, to create timely, targeted, and effective strategies to address challenges that arise;
Conducting a full audit of all municipal buildings, including Boston Public Schools, Boston Housing Authority properties, and other City-owned housing, to identify infrastructure and property upgrades to eliminate barriers to reliable, high quality, affordable Internet service;
Ensuring that all new buildings in Boston and major renovation projects meet broadband readiness criteria;
Exploring the creation of a municipal broadband network in Boston to ensure high quality, truly affordable service for every resident and business.
Promote Digital Justice in City Services
The City’s own actions and budget must be a tool to build digital justice. Each online interaction with constituents must build trust in the City as a partner working toward our shared goals of racial and economic justice, civic engagement, and community building.
Guaranteeing multilingual translation, interpretation, and communications access services for all residents to have full access to City programs, events, documents, and processes regardless of language spoken at home or communications disability;
Creating a community-driven Technology Ethics Committee within the Commission on Human Rights to ensure that procurement and use of technology for City services meets a code of ethical standards drafted in partnership with community;
Implementing anti-racist policies for digital access and privacy rights across City departments and municipal operations;
Implementing City-wide surveillance oversight protections to provide community accountability and transparency regarding the acquisition and use of surveillance technology and data to protect privacy, civil rights, and racial and immigrant justice.
Secure Health Equity through Technology
Telemedicine by phone or video can dramatically expand access to physical and mental healthcare services – even outside of the pandemic. But we must continue working swiftly to address the digital gaps that act as a barrier to accessing care. With City leadership, telemedicine can equitably connect our residents with and remove barriers to essential health services.
Creating the Office of Health and Digital Equity within the Boston Public Health Commission to work in partnership with community health centers, hospitals, and insurers to distill the best practices gleaned by rapidly scaling up telemedicine during the pandemic and apply these lessons to increase telehealth capacity;
Creating dedicated space in municipal workspaces for City employees to be utilized for telehealth visits, and encourage private employers to adopt similar practices;
Expand access to mental healthcare and supports for the management of chronic diseases in partnership with community members, clinicians, and other levels of government;
Ensuring that community members in recovery from substance use disorder have consistent access to affordable broadband and the technological tools and digital literacy supports to stay connected with healthcare services and support networks;
Advocating for the creation of a state level task force focused on the delivery of telehealth services in urban areas and for telehealth reimbursement policies that promote equity.
Leverage Transit for Mobility and Connectivity
Given the expense of home Internet plans, approximately 8% of households in Boston access the Internet exclusively through a smartphone plan, constantly monitoring data usage to remain within their monthly data limit, for fear of incurring burdensome fees or losing service altogether. While the City works with partners to expand affordability and access to home Internet options, digital tools should meet residents where they are as they move throughout the city. The MBTA has already extended WiFi to the commuter rail, but we need City leadership to close gaps through an equity lens.
Deploying City resources to install free, secure public WiFi at bus stops and along bus routes most heavily utilized by BPS students and community members who rely on smartphone data plans as their primary source of Internet access;
Working with the MBTA to harness federal and state stimulus funds to extend free, reliable WiFi to MBTA subway stations, with priority for major hubs serving residents of color and low-income communities.
Harness Leadership for Broader Change
Boston is home to a diverse array of community-rooted non-profit organizations and partners who work across every neighborhood to provide digital skills training that is responsive to the linguistic and cultural diversity of our city. We need urgent leadership to convene service providers and community partners to close gaps and deliver access for everyone.
Working proactively with state and federal officials to bring resources to Boston residents for broadband connectivity, including the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, the Lifeline program and the Mass Internet Connect program;
Working with coalition partners to address communications justice issues that are economically harmful to community members impacted by incarceration and advocate for the expansion of free internet access and digital skills training in jails and prisons;
Partnering with local and national leaders to advocate for a federal regulatory framework that ensures enforceable net neutrality protections and privacy safeguards.