It seems like easy enough math. Add access to computers, plus stable internet, plus the training to use technology, and digital equity results.
So why, in tech-savvy, educated Massachusetts, are there still about half a million households with no desktop or laptop computers and a million Massachusetts residents without a fixed broadband connection?
“I always try to come in with an abundance mindset, but the stubborn reality is it’s gotten worse, in that the skills and the access have become so much more critical,” said Dan Noyes, CEO of the two-decades-old Boston-based digital equity nonprofit Tech Goes Home. “And this is even before the pandemic, but especially coming out of the pandemic. We haven’t made, as a country, big enough steps and progress to make up for the accelerating advancement of technology.”
The term “digital divide” used to paint a picture of rural areas without reliable access to internet services, which is still a problem in large parts of Massachusetts. Increasingly, attention has turned to urban communities where large swaths of cities lack access to one or more parts of the digital equity equation.
After years of Zoom calls, virtual classrooms, and workplaces, and the rise of telemedicine, access to the basic tools, tech, and training remains a stumbling block for much of the state. Even as the vast majority of jobs now require technical literacy skills, bafflingly, Noyes said, “the divide is getting bigger.”
A 2020 report from the research arm of MassINC, CommonWealth’s parent company, found that 30,000 Gateway City households with school-age children do not have a laptop or desktop computer at home, and more than 23,000 of those households do not have internet access.
Two years later and the figures remain bleak. More than a third of midsized urban centers known as Gateway Cities lack broadband internet, according to a 2022 MassINC report, with more than half of households in Springfield, Fall River, Chelsea, and Lawrence either entirely without internet access or broadband speeds.
It often falls to small non-profit organizations to do the on-the-ground work to distribute computers, train residents to upload resumes, or sign up for telehealth appointments, and even hand out portable internet routers and help people without basic tech skills sign up for federal coupons for internet access.
Noyes said that last piece should land on internet service providers, “but because the industry is just so unregulated, there isn’t the call to action or the impetus to design something for those most in pain when it comes to that. And so, instead. you get these cookie cutter models that look good in a press release, but for millions of people, including hundreds of thousands in Massachusetts, it’s just not gonna work without significant labor on the part of nonprofits.”
Tackling the modern digital divide has been a focus for successive Bay State gubernatorial administrations. In his departing remarks, former governor Charlie Baker touted work through the state Make Ready program bringing broadband out into rural and Western Massachusetts. This spring, the state Executive Office of Economic Development and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute at MassTech awarded $14 million through a pandemic-era program to digital equity groups.
Local partnership models, where trainers work with and inside existing community programs, can help combat language and cultural barriers that exacerbate digital gaps, advocates say. A 2021 Tech Goes Home pilot program in Essex County showed “significant impact” on about 100 learners, with 800 expected to graduate over the next few years, and the group plans to expand into additional cities and towns.
“We take the access to technology so much for granted that it’s inconceivable that in a place like Boston, under the shadows of MIT, Harvard University, there are people who do not have access to computers, to internet,” said Antonio Lobo, director of workforce development for Catholic Charities, who has been a Tech Goes Home trainer for adults with limited English and tech skills for almost a decade. “We take it for granted. It’s inconceivable to you that people wouldn’t have access to the internet. After all, you can get internet for $50 if you can pay for it. When an immigrant gets to America, $50 can be the difference between food for a week [and none].”