In a pandemic that has forced many aspects of daily life online — from work to school to doctor's appointments — efforts to build out broadband infrastructure still face challenges, with private providers hesitant to invest in some unserved areas and lawmakers calling for the internet to be treated more like a public service going forward.
"There is no way that the state has done enough to close the gap, the digital divide in the Commonwealth that used to apply mostly in our minds to rural and underserved areas," Sen. Adam Hinds said. "And now the emergency of the digital divide in our downtowns is even more apparent."
The Democrat whose district encompasses Berkshire County and parts of Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties told the News Service this month that he is developing a bill to study the possibility of making broadband a utility in the Bay State. Hinds said the health crisis has underscored the urgency of ensuring that every resident has guaranteed access to the internet.
Fifty-three municipalities have received state grants through the Last Mile Program, which supports broadband infrastructure projects in unserved communities often through public-private partnerships, according to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. As of January, 29 of those broadband projects had been completed, while 12 were in progress and 12 communities in the program were still developing their projects.
During the pandemic, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute has also rolled out several programs for short-term broadband relief, including a municipal hotspot initiative and a subsidy program for job seekers facing technology barriers. Hotspots are currently installed in 23 unserved communities, according to the MBI, while 21 Gateway Cities are in the pipeline to receive hotspots and five communities on Cape Cod are set to receive outdoor hotspots.
Rep. Natalie Blais (D-Sunderland) said state incentives like the Last Mile Program have helped communities in Franklin County make "tremendous progress" in expanding access in recent years. But the fact that the state has had to step in shows that private companies can't be trusted to solve this problem on their own, she said.
"I still have constituents who are working and learning in their vehicles outside of their town halls and libraries. That is unacceptable," Blais told the News Service. "And the fact that it's still a surprise to people shows that we have to be shining a brighter spotlight on the challenges that these communities are facing."
Even with grant funds available, advocates say it can be difficult to persuade internet providers to invest in infrastructure in rural areas. That was the case for several communities in western Massachusetts that joined together to form WiredWest, a collective effort to build a regional fiber-optic network.
Douglas McNally, WiredWest's delegate for the town of Windsor, said the MBI appealed to cable companies with state grant funds to offset build-out costs, but providers were still unwilling to take on infrastructure projects in small, rural communities like his.
A Comcast spokesman told the News Service that WiredWest's model is unique and that the provider does not work on projects where it cannot retain ownership and operation of the network upon completion. He said Comcast has partnered with the MBI on projects in Worthington, Middlefield, Montgomery and Holland, which are governed by local franchise agreements.
The WiredWest towns eventually selected Whip City Fiber, a division of public utility provider Westfield Gas and Electric, as their network manager and internet service provider. Windsor started connecting homes during the pandemic, with about 260 of the 400 subscribed households hooked up so far. Last Mile grant funds covered about a third of the cost, while subscription revenue and federal funds from the Connecting America initiative will help the town pay down the money it borrowed for the project.
"With our revenue from our subscriptions, because we have a very high take rate at 80 percent, it appears likely that the tax rate in the town of Windsor will not be affected by this," McNally said. "In other words, we will end up in five years, six years, owning a network that is paid for and is nonprofit."
The New England Cable and Telecommunications Association described Massachusetts as a "national leader" in broadband access, noting that private providers in the state invest "hundreds of millions of dollars annually in network capacity, security and resiliency."
"Government-owned broadband networks have a record of inconsistency, cost overruns and bankruptcies that have burdened taxpayers and strained already challenged state and local budgets," the organization said in a statement. "Instead of pursuing expensive and unreliable solutions to a problem nearly solved, we should build on the efforts of our members, the Administration and the Legislature to increase adoption of internet services in the home using the proven public-private partnership model."
Though lack of access to high-speed internet is often viewed as a rural problem, the pandemic has revealed barriers that exist in more urban areas as well. Rep. Andy Vargas (D-Haverhill) pointed to cost as a significant challenge for his constituents, especially since many communities may have only one option for internet service. He said this can lead to disparities in adoption, especially among communities of color and low-income residents.
According to Pew Research Center, roughly 61 percent of Hispanic adults in the United States had broadband access in their homes in 2019, compared to 66 percent of Black adults and 79 percent of white adults.
"If we said that 30 percent of Latino families didn't have access to heat or hot water, we would be up in arms. So it's more like a utility," Vargas said. "And I think people have started to notice that even more during this pandemic, no matter if you're young or senior, working from home or a student. It's really across the spectrum."
After Comcast announced plans to charge residents an additional monthly fee for exceeding 1.2 terabytes of data usage, Vargas filed a bill with fellow Democratic Rep. Dave Rogers to ban internet providers from shutting off internet access, raising rates or imposing data caps during the COVID-19 crisis. Comcast has since pushed back the roll-out of its plan to August, but Vargas believes the policy will negatively impact residents beyond the pandemic and that it raises concerns about the state's ability to regulate private internet providers.
According to a Comcast spokesman, 1.2 terabytes of data is enough for 3,500 hours of video conferencing, 1,200 hours of watching distance learning videos, and 500 hours of high-definition streaming per month. The spokesman said that the company is also increasing the speed of its Internet Essentials service, which provides internet access and digital literacy programs to low-income households, starting March 1.
Some larger municipalities are eyeing their broadband options, too. In July, the Worcester Regional Research Bureau released a report recommending that the city explore establishing a municipal broadband network, noting that the pandemic has highlighted access issues that "a regional monopoly, lack of infrastructure investment and a prioritization of profits over service have exacerbated."
According to the report, 18 percent of Worcester households had no internet access of any kind in 2018.
"The benefits of municipal broadband are undeniable -- local control over an increasingly essential service, broader reach resulting in more equity in terms of which city residents deserve to have an internet connection and a commitment to speed and service that is not guaranteed from a for-profit entity," the report said.
The Worcester report also acknowledges the potential costs of such a project, citing the estimated $50 million price tag Springfield officials identified for a potential network there. For their part, advocates say that without action, communities are at risk of shouldering higher costs, such as the loss of potential job opportunities, access to telehealth, economic development and the chance to bring new residents to rural areas.
"It's our electrification moment for the commonwealth and really for the country," Hinds said. "At a certain point we need to step up and close that gap, and the private companies have not been doing that."