Officials in Boston, Massachusetts are working to ensure that every resident has access to reliable internet and the ability to successfully navigate digital technology. NCC sat down with Mike Lynch, the City’s Broadband and Cable Director, to discuss the City’s advancements in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can you provide us with an overview of the broadband landscape in Boston?
ML: Boston is fortunate to have a long-term cable provider. Comcast was first built in Boston around thirty-eight years ago. Around the year 2000, a company called RCN came as an overbuilder to compete. Then we had two providers. In the last four years, Verizon has come in. They are our incumbent local exchange carrier (ILC). They decided [that] they will indeed provide FIOs in Boston. Over the last couple of years they have decided to build out all of Boston. So, [the] net result [is] we ended up with three cable companies in Boston. One of them provides service to every part of the City. The other two are overbuilding the City. We are confident that Verizon will be a complete overbuilder. So, every neighborhood in the City will have two competitors – Verizon and Comcast, which was the goal.
What are some of the major concerns that residents have about connectivity, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?
ML: When you think about Boston in terms of its demographics, it is a relatively “small big city”. It’s 600,000 people. Probably one-third of that population is between the ages of 20-34. Another one-third of the City’s population probably speaks a language other than English at home. We are a majority-minority city, and we have tons of students. I think our college and university population in Boston is about 140,000 and our public school enrollment is about 55,000.
We have learned over the last six months that broadband connectivity, which was in some homes or constituencies [considered] nice to have is a necessity at this point. The world would be a perfect place if forty years ago it was deemed to be a utility, but it is not. The lack of success by the federal government to address cable and broadband universally is now a problem that cities have to address and face for their residents.
We have found in Boston that probably at this point in time there are 5,000 households that lack connectivity. Those households included children of school age from Boston Public Schools, isolated seniors, and new immigrants. These are people who need education and need resources from social service agencies that have to be delivered remotely during a pandemic time and a time of social distancing. Here we’re scrambling to sort of address that problem.
Our Mayor Marty Walsh established a COVID-19 fund to address these needs, and we have invested close to $5 million for the purchase of [upwards] of 32,000 Chromebooks. We have provided 5,000 hotspots to families that lack connectivity, and with our seniors and new immigrant populations we have distributed more than 2,000 tablets. So that they can be in touch with the social service agencies they rely upon.
Is there anything specific that you want residents to know about the work that you all are doing to connect them?
ML: The work is not done. Everybody discovered over the last six months that connectivity is a must have, and people who may not have been that interested or didn’t see the immediate need are now pressed into understanding that we have a need for connectivity. We are scrambling to fill in those gaps of failed federal policies that have not made digital connectivity universally available and affordable to all.