In the digital highway, Everett’s stuck in the slow lane.
A new study of median downloads speeds across the state by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) showed that Everett has the second slowest speeds in Greater Boston, just barely behind Chelsea and exponentially behind places like Wellesley and Weston.
Everett registered an average of 38.91 Megabits per second, which was only slightly higher than Chelsea’s 35.56. It was far below neighbors like Revere (50.38) and Malden (54.82), and exponentially slower than Wellesley (141.08) and Weston (234.46). It is, for most, confirmation of something that’s been known for quite some time, and something that COVID-19 has made more apparent as students struggle with connectivity in the all-remote schooling and workers confined to their homes frequently get kicked offline. Even expensive equipment can’t fix the issues, as it’s likely an infrastructure problem caused by years of City Council fighting with providers and the overall inequitable investment in urban areas by providers that seems to be a trend in the study.
Ryan Kelly, Josh Eichen and Matthew Zagaja of MAPC said they took on the study to find out about things that matter to people right now – such as internet speeds. The goal is to expand on the information, add more data, and help municipalities to solve these problems so good access to something as important as the Internet isn’t determined by one’s zip code.
“We very quickly identified digital access as something we wanted to study,” said Eichen. “It enables education, access to healthcare, the ability to fill out unemployment claims, access to housing support services and food security – all of this is online now. It’s very important, now more than ever, to get access.
The speed tests were accessed via an open data set from Measurement Lab, said Zagaja. While many haven’t heard of Measurement Lab, it is the standard speed test used by Google. So, there is a ton of data and they analyzed those speed tests, isolated them to each zip code and ran through data from January to late November. In analyzing the data, they were able to tell if the speed test was done due to a problem with the internet that was fixed later. So, repair situations weren’t included in the overall averages.
“It gives us a baseline of the numbers of individuals having an issue,” he said.
Kelly added they not only want to help municipalities fix their digital issues, but also they want to help them gather information to know exactly what their problems are. He said many of the software companies and platforms used by municipalities have all kinds of connectivity data, and that can be asked for in contracts or agreements with those companies. Having that data, he said, will only help identify issues.
“We’re also trying to empower municipalities to get their own date and improve the lives of their residents,” he said.
They are also looking for all kinds of partners in addition to City government, including community based organizations, school districts, health care providers and community development corporations to name a few.
Eichen said one of the lenses of the study focuses on equity, and in many low-income urban areas, there isn’t enough investment in digital access by providers. That is a trend by Internet providers to offer better service in wealthier suburban communities, a trend borne out by the MAPC data.
“MAPC as an organization has a major focus on equity,” he said. “We want to encourage development and ensure that individuals don’t have their economic mobility become stunted because of lack of access that is a central issue.”
School Committeeman Frank Parker said this is one example – especially now with remote learning – of how inequity in education hits a community like Everett in ways that it doesn’t elsewhere.
“The proof is in the pudding here,” he said. “The more we try to be equitable, the more we discover how inequitable we are. Low income districts like Everett and Chelsea consistently fall behind the eight ball, and this shows us one reason why.”
Councilor Stephanie Martins has frequently been critical of the City’s internet service, and called on the Council to declare the bad service a public health crisis last month. She said she frequently hears from parents whose children are having trouble learning despite new equipment provided by the schools – not to mention her own struggles to try to get on and stay on at City Council meetings.
“It’s internet justice and that’s what I meant when I said that Internet access if a public health crisis,” she said. “It’s about accessing information, housing, education and paying bills. That’s all on the internet now. I only wonder why a diverse community like Everett has been left behind. It makes me wonder if it’s an intentional difference in speeds between wealthier communities and ours. It’s not like we’re not paying for it. We have the same packages as everyone else, but they’re not delivering the same service.”
Another piece of the puzzle in Everett, however, is the regulatory setup at the City Council and the historic aversion to technology companies and their expansion in the city. Just this summer, the Council rejected several antennae upgrades by Verizon Wireless that would have brought much faster service to several neighborhoods. The Council was sued by Verizon, and that case is still being litigated.
However, the trend of contentious situations between internet and cell phone providers and the Council goes back to at least 2006, said Clerk Sergio Cornelio. Back then, the Council denied about 15 to 18 small cell antennae to be put up, and the company sued the city and won. That same scenario is playing out right now with Verizon too. For the most part, he said, the Council approves most equipment, but only after many long meetings and discussions that can last for hours on a subject that most Councils don’t have the power to regulate.
He said he has been trying to get the Council to give over the power to another Board that might handle it, maybe to take some of the politics out of the matter. Many times, Councilors are approached by a handful of residents that do not want the antennae near their homes for whatever reason. In those instances, councilors are forced to make a political choice on a technological issue.
“I’ve been trying to see if they would give over that authority to another Board that could specialize in this,” he said. “That way it doesn’t bog down a Council agenda for six or 10 weeks. I’m hoping there is an appetite for that in the future.”
Even as he spoke over the phone, he said he has to go to a certain place in the basement of City Hall near a window to get cell service in the building. He said he figures that spot may be near to a cell antennae.
“We have to believe the science sometimes like we do with COVID,” he said. “People have done the research on this.”
Councilor Michael McLaughlin said he would rather give up the authority because it does put the Council in a tough position. He said when you’re faced with a resident who is looking for help versus a cell phone company or provider – it’s hard not to choose a resident who needs help.
“You want to help your residents and that’s a difficult situation to be put in,” he said. “I’d gladly give it up.”
But not everyone is keen on it, and Cornelio said he would need to keep working on the idea in the coming year.
Parker said it has to be approached by the Council like it is a street or sidewalk repair in that it is a critical service – especially now. He pointed to the Council’s own troubles with the Internet at its meetings, noting that two councilors were unable to vote on the contentious issue of putting the mayor on the School Committee last month. Due to internet access issues, Councilor Martins and John Hanlon could not register their vote on that hot-button issue and their votes weren’t counted.
“I would like to see it approached from now on like it were repairs to streets or sidewalks or sewer pipes,” he said. “If the schools and residents are having issues, what is happening with the businesses? Look at the Council. Perhaps if they’d have let these companies make their upgrades, we’d have better internet and they could have had a full contingent to vote on the mayor joining the School Committee.”
Eichen said the MAPC study touches on so many things now that COVID has changed the way the world works, learns and conducts business.
“There are so many ways to share this,” he said. “There is going to be more and more demand for high-speed, reliable internet. Businesses will be increasingly looking at this when they make decisions on where to locate. There may be companies that no longer need 15,000 sq. ft. downtown for an office, but may be able to use 5,000 sq. ft. in an inner suburb. But they might not get the same infrastructure there as they got in downtown Boston. Municipalities may see this as an opportunity to cash in under this scenario.”
Speeds by Community
A sample of some of the median download speeds by community from across Greater Boston. Speeds are measured in Megabits per second.
•Chelsea – 35.56
•Everett – 38.91
•Somerville – 44.26
•Cambridge – 46.23
•Revere – 50.38
•Malden – 54.82
•Quincy – 58.26
•Medford – 65.21
•Arlington – 66.22
•Newton – 80.02
•Wellesley – 141.08
•Weston – 234.46