A third of Worcester students don’t have internet at home, but COVID relief funds offer opportunity to bolster broadband access, Worcester Regional Research Bureau report finds

The disparity in broadband access among Worcester households has never been clearer, writes the Worcester Regional Research Bureau in its latest report, but the availability of federal and state support for investment in new initiatives, including municipal broadband or a fiber optic network, creates a unique opportunity to bridge the digital divide.

To bridge the digital divide that exists in the city and an aging broadband infrastructure that faces limited bandwidth, the Bureau suggests that the city use federal and state funding to invest in municipal broadband and upgraded infrastructure. day.

Data included in the report shows that there is still a significant digital divide in Worcester. In 2019, only 61% of low-income households had broadband internet at home, compared to 93.7% of households earning more than $75,000, according to the Bureau’s latest report, Boosting Broadband: Access, Performance, Improvements and Financing.

The new report builds on the Bureau’s previous report, “Expanding Broadband: Considering Municipal Ownership as a Solution to Worcester’s Internet Challenges.”

In 2019, only 61% of low-income households in Worcester had a broadband internet connection at home. (Worcester Regional Research Office)

A key focus of the new report is the gap that exists between Worcester public school students and the district’s efforts to close those gaps during the COVID-19 outbreak.

In March 2020, WPS transitioned all students to remote learning. The district used $360,000 from the emergency connectivity fund to provide 7,700 Wi-Fi hotspots for students without a constant internet connection at home. The district also spent $7.2 million on devices for students to access the Internet and purchased 23,000 Chromebooks.

“These interim measures meet emergency needs, but require adequate budgetary resources as a long-term initiative,” the report said. “WPS began blended learning in March 2021, however, as more educational resources move online, students without internet access at home will continue to be disadvantaged.”

As of March 2021, 8,509 students at Worcester Public School — about a third of the district’s roughly 25,000 students — lacked high-speed internet service at home. A total of 788 students could not be served by an Internet service provider, the Bureau said. These numbers may have fluctuated since March 2021, due to families moving in and out of Worcester, however, the data illustrates a significant digital divide among students.

WPS students without a broadband subscription from March 2021

WPS students without a broadband subscription in March 2021 (Worcester Regional Research Bureau)

The Bureau highlighted the City of Las Vegas, which implemented a citywide broadband network in December 2020 in response to the COVID outbreak and schools moving to remote learning, in using $1 million in federal COVID aid to help fund the project. The project took just 45 days to deploy the hardware needed for the project, according to the report.

In Worcester, broadband access has improved across all demographics, with the share of households without a broadband connection down nearly 5% since 2016, but disparities in access remain, the Bureau said.

These disparities are, in part, due to the fact that 99.99% of Worcester residents have only one internet access option: Charter-Spectrum, the report notes.

“A free market approach could allow for greater access with different levels of service,” the Bureau writes. “However, Worcester does not operate in a traditional free market, with one ISP providing service to over 99% of the city. As such, government attention is needed to close these access gaps.

The city has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage state and federal resources to improve the city’s access to broadband, the Bureau asserts in the report.

Specifically, funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provide a unique opportunity to improve broadband infrastructure in Worcester, according to the report.

Of the $110 million the city received in relief funds, City Manager Edward M. Augustus allocated $5.9 million to invest in broadband infrastructure “to focus on solutions and potential improvements in state and federal resources that could come our way,” the report said. .

While internet download and upload speeds have increased, at some point cable internet connections, which the city primarily relies on, will hit a ceiling in terms of bandwidth capacity, the Bureau said. .

A move to a fiber optic network could provide the city with faster speeds and greater bandwidth.

Worcester currently has extensive fiber infrastructure that is unused and referred to as “dark fiber,” according to the report.

Verizon is in the early stages of a multi-year plan with plans to build a citywide fiber optic network that would provide broadband and voice services, the Bureau reported.

The report points to other communities, including Hartford, Connecticut; Salem, Quincy, Cambridge, Concord and Shrewsbury as useful policy models for Worcester to follow in terms of broadband development.

“Catalysing additional private investment in fiber, such as the ongoing installation of Verizon and/or investing in a municipally run broadband network, may require innovative policies and substantial capital investments, but result in direct returns and indirect effects important for the city.

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