• Sun. Dec 3rd, 2023

    Addressing Internet Access Disparities in Urban Areas

    BySharna Bass

    Nov 5, 2023
    Addressing Internet Access Disparities in Urban Areas

    Internet access has become an essential part of daily life, enabling individuals to access various opportunities and services, ranging from education and employment to healthcare and communication. However, many lower-income families still struggle with internet access, both in rural and urban areas. While rural connectivity issues are well-documented, it is important to recognize the digital divide present in urban environments, particularly in public and income-restricted housing complexes.

    Massachusetts is taking steps to address this issue by allocating $400 million from infrastructure and COVID recovery bills for broadband and digital equity initiatives. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute is currently piloting programs that aim to expand internet access throughout the state. This funding provides a crucial opportunity to replicate successful programs and invest in infrastructure, affordability, and education to improve internet access in subsidized housing developments.

    According to census data, approximately 10 percent of households in Massachusetts do not have a broadband internet subscription. The lack of internet service is disproportionately prevalent in low-income households and public housing units. In fact, national research indicates that one-third of public housing residents lack internet access.

    Several factors contribute to this disparity. Many public housing buildings were constructed before the advent of the internet, making it challenging to wire them for modern connections. Additionally, limited financial resources and a complex public procurement process make it difficult for housing managers to obtain the necessary hardware for building-wide internet access.

    Even in wired buildings, higher prices and limited competition among service providers can hinder access. Some buildings lack utility corridors that support multiple providers, while building owners may enter exclusive contracts with single providers. Additionally, private internet service providers may view lower-income areas as less profitable, further limiting options for residents.

    To address these barriers, Massachusetts must consider innovative approaches. Streamlining the state’s procurement process for public housing authorities and leveraging collective purchasing power could help increase competition and lower costs. Moreover, investments in education and digital literacy programs are crucial to ensure residents can fully utilize the benefits of internet access.

    A 2022 report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council revealed that the high cost of internet subscriptions was a major reason for cancellation among residents in lower-income cities. The Boston Housing Authority also found that a significant portion of public housing residents lacked internet access, with affordability being the primary obstacle.

    To bridge this gap, the Boston Housing Authority has taken steps to wire common areas and tenant association offices for internet access in multiple buildings. They have also partnered with the Boston Public Library to provide residents with laptops and routers, while nonprofits offer computer classes. Similar initiatives across the state have been made possible through federal funding, with pilot programs in Chelsea, Revere, and Quincy providing free Wi-Fi to residents in subsidized housing.

    These efforts highlight the impact that federal funding can have on expanding internet access. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s focus on urban housing represents an essential shift to address the digital divide comprehensively. By providing discounted internet services, offering consultation to communities, and investing in affordable housing infrastructure, we can bridge the access gap for those who need it most.

    Ultimately, it is a collective responsibility to ensure that all residents have equitable access to the internet. By investing in targeted initiatives and forging partnerships between cities, state government, housing providers, and nonprofits, Massachusetts can make significant strides in closing the urban digital divide. Access to the internet is not just a luxury but a basic necessity that fosters economic mobility and social connectivity.


    1. What is the digital divide?

    The digital divide refers to the gap between those who have access to the internet and digital technologies and those who do not. It encompasses disparities in internet access, connectivity speeds, digital literacy, and affordability.

    2. Why is internet access important?

    Internet access is crucial in today’s society as it enables individuals to access information, educational resources, job opportunities, healthcare services, and communication platforms. It plays a significant role in economic, social, and educational advancement.

    3. What are some challenges to internet access in urban areas?

    Urban areas face unique challenges when it comes to internet access, including older buildings that are difficult to wire for modern connections, limited competition among service providers, and higher costs in lower-income areas. These factors contribute to disparities in internet access within urban communities.