December Data Viz: The Need for Speed

Every month, MAPC's Data Services department is releasing maps and data visualizations covering a range of vital and interrelated topics: equity, housing, transportation, climate, arts and culture, and more.

December’s visualization revisits the digital divide in an exploration of internet download speeds across Massachusetts. As more and more aspects of our lives go online, the need for reliable internet access is more crucial than ever.

Click here to view the interactive version of the map above.

Fast, reliable internet is a basic need in the world of COVID. Not only does work, school, and healthcare often get done online, it often gets done online by multiple members of a household at once.

To reveal where there might be speed deserts – gaps in adequate internet access – MAPC mapped the median download speed for each municipality in the Commonwealth. We also charted, by city or town, the distribution of internet connections that perform at various rates of download speeds.

Most Massachusetts communities have an average download speed of 50–100 megabits per second (mbps). But some average less than 30mbps – close to the threshold of what’s considered acceptable service by the federal government.

Of course, many factors contribute to speed, from equipment performance to heavy use to multiple people sharing a connection. And download speed is not the only measure of internet access: That also requires an adequate device and digital literacy.

For a household already working to bridge the Digital Divide – already likely to have slower or fewer devices and to face barriers to internet fluency – low download speeds and poor connectivity can make things even harder.

MAPC recommends municipalities tackle speed deserts in three steps:

  1. Perform a digital community-needs assessment – Specify and evaluate the municipality’s particular barriers to access.
  2. Assemble appropriate provider partners – Gather entities capable of providing the main elements of access: connections, digital services, equipment, and ongoing maintenance. Depending on the community this may include entities such as housing authorities, healthcare providers, schools, library, IT support providers, workforce training programs, and others.
  3. Technology and Procurement – Take inventory resources such as dark fiber lines, carrier hotels, and other components of internet infrastructure in order to determine needs.

For assistance in exploring issues related to the digital divide, contact MAPC Senior Economic Development Planner, Josh Eichen.