The City of Boston’s Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate: The First Twelve Months

Introduction

I have the honor of serving the City of Boston as the City’s Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate. This role was created in 2015 by Mayor Martin J. Walsh in the City’s Department of Innovation & Technology to (1) enable the City’s progress towards improved access to affordable and reliable high speed Internet for households and businesses, (2) further the expansion of high speed Internet in public places, and (3) create greater ease of access to up-to-date digital tools and opportunities for residents to develop digital skills.  A full description of this role can be found in this article published by the Digital Inclusion Alliance.1

As it functions in many communities, broadband infrastructure and use is a forever evolving ecosystem. Within this ecosystem are infrastructural elements above and below ground, markets made up of public and private providers of broadband services, and digital tools that shift from luxury to necessity in rapid succession.  On top of this, efforts to advance digital skills development are hard pressed to keep pace with the demands of modern day educational and workforce settings. In order for broadband infrastructure to actually be the infrastructure of opportunity that we aspire for it to be, these and other elements must be organized in a fashion that advances equitable access and use.

Cities’ goals related to equity and opportunity cannot be fully realized in the absence of a high-functioning broadband ecosystem that fully meets the connectivity needs of community members. The time and resources that government, organizations, businesses, and people commit in the pursuit of their goals will go much further in a connectivity rich environment that enables people to utilize technology where they live, work, play, learn, and engage in civic pursuits. An important theme in all of this is change. Future waves of technological change will necessitate the acquisition of new ways of using digital skills and tools to leverage the Internet for opportunity. The progress we already know needs to be made and the anticipation of future change is why the City of Boston’s role of Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate was created as a permanent staff position.

Cities have another clear stake in ensuring a fully connected citizenry—demonstrating respect for the time and life responsibilities of all constituents. In many cities, including Boston, constituents now have the option of completing many transactions online. The ‘Pay and Apply’ tab on the City of Boston’s website is host to online transactions including but not limited to requesting a moving truck permit, registering to vote, paying a parking ticket, applying for a parking permit, requesting a birth certificate, and applying for a dog license. Each of these constituent transactions represents an activity that could take minutes to complete online for those who have access—and for those who don’t, a much greater amount of time spent getting to and from City Hall.

The City of Boston has held a longstanding commitment to digital equity. For more than a decade, the City has provided support to local organizations such as Tech Goes Home, a non-profit that offers training in digital skills, opportunities to secure affordable digital tools, and support in identifying and accessing high-speed Internet for home use. The City has connected twenty-six schools and thirty-eight libraries to fiber through the Boston Fiber Optic Network (BoNet). An upcoming fiber expansion will connect the remaining eighty-nine schools, giving all public schools better speeds for educational tools. Each branch of the Boston Public Library (BPL) has computers available for public use as well as free Wi-Fi. The City is also expanding Wicked Free Wi-Fi in public gathering places, Boston Main Streets, and Boston Centers for Youth Families.

While many positive strides have been made to advance digital equity in Boston, the City is aware that the connectivity challenges yet to be fully addressed are a barrier to Boston achieving its full potential as a place of equity, opportunity, and innovation. Boston has a broadband adoption rate in which one in five people (approximately 140,000 people) are unconnected to high-speed Internet at home, primarily for reasons of affordability. This is attributable in part to the monopoly effect of a broadband market in which ninety percent of Bostonians have a single option for home broadband service.

Shared ownership and collaboration across many City departments is an important feature of Boston’s approach to improving its broadband ecosystem. This is crucial to the City acting responsively within its own evolving broadband ecosystem and successfully integrating the principles of broadband and digital equity into the workflows of city government. The deep content area expertise and passion of Boston’s public servants who work both in and outside of DoIT are critical to achieving broadband and digital equity goals. The Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate operates very much in this spirit. In the first year of this role’s presence within the City of Boston, few actions have been initiated with the involvement of fewer than two departments. Departments that the Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate has had the opportunity to engage with in the course of the first year of this role include the following:

Boston 311

Boston Centers for Youth & Families

Boston Planning and Development Agency

Boston Public Schools

Boston Housing Authority

Boston Public Library

Department of Neighborhood Development

Department of Neighborhood Services

Office of Economic Development

Commission on Affairs of the Elderly

Environment, Energy, and Open Space Cabinet

Inspectional Services Department

Intergovernmental Relations

Law Department

Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement

Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics

Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity

Department of Public Works

Public Improvement Commission

Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity

Mayor’s Office of Small Business Development

Below are a few examples of how, in the first twelve months of this role, the City of Boston has integrated broadband and digital equity into the workflows of city government. The level of attention on my part and the colleagues involved ranges from as little as a thirty-minute conversation and light follow-up to many hours of collaborative work over months. New areas of convergence will arise and some of the areas listed below may not be a high priority for intense collaboration in the coming years.

Enabling a Broadband Ready Built Environment

  • Real Estate Development: The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and the Department of Innovation & Technology collaborated to integrate questions about the broadband readiness of buildings into the Project Notification Form component of BPDA’s Article 80 Design Review. Our goal in posing these questions during the Article 80 process is to support developers in integrating future looking broadband practices into their plans well before any ground is broken. Taking this proactive step will help to ensure that the 53,000 new housing units that will be created in Boston by 2030 as well as commercial development enables consumer choice and is responsive to emerging technologies. This process began with a number of brainstorming conversations between BPDA and DoIT colleagues. We then began writing questions related to building design and developer decision making that aligned with our goals of advancing competition and choice for residents and business owners. We subsequently undertook close collaboration with industry experts who provided aid in mirroring our questions to the present and anticipated state of the art in broadband ready building technology.
  • Integrated Utility Planning: The Boston Planning and Development Agency’s Smart Utilities Vision is a collaborative study between city government and Boston’s utility companies that will offer a new model for integrated planning among energy, transit, water, and communications utilities. By improving coordination among utilities, the Smart Utilities Vision aims to make urban districts more affordable, resilient, connected, and sustainable. I was part of the committee that created a request for proposals (RFP) for consultative services and helped select a vendor for these services. Departments involved include BPDA; DoIT; Public Works; Boston Transportation Department; Environment, Energy, & Open Space; the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics; and the Public Improvement Commission.

City-Constituent Communication as Path to Connectivity

  • Digital Modes of Communication: A great deal of attention in this role is focused on integrating broadband and digital equity into work that we are already doing. For example, the City of Boston takes very seriously its responsibility to support constituents in connecting with information and resources that improve quality of life. To that end, the Digital Team (the creators and stewards of gov) and I worked together to position connectivity resources within the portion of the Boston.gov aimed at resources for basic needs such as food, water, and shelter.
  • Non-Digital Modes of Communication: Information on the City’s website is, of course, less accessible to Bostonians who are un- or under-connected to high speed Internet. With that in mind, colleagues and I are working to find non-Internet based modes to communicate this information. One such mode is through coordination with the City’s Boston 311 (BOS:311) Information on the Broadband and Digital Equity webpage has been entered into the BOS:311 operator system, allowing members of the call center team to point constituents in the right direction on questions related to Internet access, digital skills, and digital tools.

Strategies to Advance Broadband Adoption

  • Wi-Fit Hotspot Lending: Thanks to a $100,000 digital equity contribution made by Verizon to the City of Boston (see Item 7 of Verizon/City of Boston Cooperation Agreement), the Boston Public Library will soon launch a Wi-Fi hotspot lending pilot program.2 I worked with BPL colleagues to create out an initial plan for the pilot and to craft an RFP to purchase the Wi-Fi hotspots. In the early stages of drafting this RFP, we sought insight from library systems who had already launched Wi-Fi hotspot lending programs. These include the Seattle Public Library and New York Public Library.
  • Strategies to Advance Digital Equity within Public Housing Communities: The Boston Housing Authority and the City of Boston are proud that Boston was selected as one of twenty-seven communities to take part in the inaugural year of the United States Office of Housing and Urban Development’s ConnectHome program. I also have the opportunity to work with BHA staff as they explore strategies to increase the availability of affordable broadband options for BHA residents.

Citywide Planning Processes

  • Resilience and Racial Equity: The Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity leads efforts to help Boston plan for and deal with catastrophes and slow-moving disasters—like persistent racial and economic inequality—that have become part of twenty-first-century life. The Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity team and I integrated tactics related to broadband and digital equity into the focus areas of economic justice and critical infrastructure.
  • Climate Change Adaptation – Like many cities, Boston is facing the consequences of a changing climate, including extreme temperatures, sea level rise, heavy precipitation and coastal storms.  All Bostonians must have access to high-speed Internet access, digital skills, and digital tools in order to build the community capacity necessary for preparedness in the face of these changes.  To this end, colleagues in DoIT and the Environment, Energy & Open Space Cabinet are working to integrate the City’s broadband and digital equity goals into the Climate Ready Boston initiative.
  • Citywide Master Planning: As Boston’s first citywide plan in fifty years, Imagine Boston 2030 will guide positive physical change while promoting shared prosperity, coordinated public investments, and a healthy environment and population. The City’s broadband and digital equity principles are a featured part of the initiatives that are emerging from the planning process.

The City of Boston has made great strides in creating a broadband ecosystem that supports its goals as a high functioning city government and makes possible a future of equity, innovation, and prosperity to benefit all constituents. We are well aware, though, that just as the challenges the City faces were not created overnight, neither will they be addressed instantaneously. We must continue to cultivate an environment of shared ownership among the City’s many talented and passionate civil servants. Their work has made possible the successes to date and will allow the City to make even greater gains in the years to come.

Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Angela Siefer, “Boston’s Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate,” National Digital Inclusion Alliance, February 14, 2016, http://www.digitalinclusionalliance.org/blog/2016/2/14/bostons-broadband-and-digital-equity-advocate.
  2. Jordan Graham, Boston Public Library Will Lend out Hotspots, Boston Herald, May 1, 2016, http://www.bostonherald.com/business/business_markets/2016/05/boston_public_library_will_lend_out_hotspots.
Anne Schwieger

About Anne Schwieger

As Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate, Anne Schwieger supports the City of Boston in advancing access to affordable broadband connectivity, up-to-date digital tools, and the digital skills that Bostonians need to engage in the educational, economic, and civic pursuits critical to a future of equity, innovation, and opportunity for themselves, their families, and communities. Anne also serves on the City of Cambridge Broadband Task Force and is the producer of Cambridge Broadband Matters on Cambridge Community Television. She holds a master of city planning from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT and a BA in biology and society from Cornell University.

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