PITTSFIELD – Last decade in Western Massachusetts, shutdown the digital divide it meant getting fiber, cable, or wireless service at every address.
Today the frontier is not geographical.
With almost all “last mile” Once the connections are complete, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has shifted, in its final months, on efforts to help Massachusetts families overcome other barriers to access.
At a local level, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is helping cities and towns embark on a journey towards new pools of financial and technical assistance. More than half a dozen Berkshire communities have expressed interest by participating in a presentation through the Municipal Association of Massachusetts.
“We think Berkshire County towns that show early interest prepare us well for the next rounds of state or federal funding, in areas where we may be overlooked,” said Wylie Goodman, the commission’s senior economic development planner.
Lanesborough has applied, according to a statement from the planning commission, and Clarksburg plans to enter. Pittsfield, North Adams, Williamstown, New Marlborough and Mount Washington took part in the MMA webinar.
Last week, Baker and other top state officials came to the region to celebrate the sixth year last mile broadband project. Speakers at the event, held in Ashfield, looked back and forth.
Michael Kennealy, secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, told a new digital equity planning programme within the Massachusetts Broadband Institute will help cities and towns address how gaps in effective Internet access impact people in their communities.
The new program will educate municipalities on how to tap into large sums of money.
“These are important parts of the next iteration of the strategy, which is approximately $350 million in state and federal funding,” Kennealy told Ashfield.
In Berkshire County, Goodman is reaching out to all communities, encouraging them to apply to join the MBI to plan for digital equity.
The point? Finding ways to extend broadband access to people who remain marginalized – people who remain disadvantaged by not taking part in today’s dominant communication tool.
The barrier could be cost, digital literacy and basic technology skills, language, or lack of the right devices.
“We still have gaps, and they’re not just out here, they’re all over the state,” Ashley Stolba, undersecretary for housing and economic development, told the Ashfield rally. “We’re doing a lot of work as we think about how we’re going to spend this $350 million. We’re doing the planning, we’re doing the applications, we’re doing the strategy.
The MBI says the strategies established by individual cities will drive the state’s overall digital equity plan and influence how federal infrastructure money is spent.
Kennealy, the secretary of housing and economic development, said last week that the Digital Equity Planning Program will set the table for these future investments.
Helping those hardest hit by the pandemic remains a top priority, the state says.
For the last mile project that is nearing completion, the state has allocated $57 million to help residents in 53 underserved cities. Now, the broader digital equity effort opens that playing field to all communities in Massachusetts.
For that reason, Goodman is urging Berkshire municipal leaders to join now. The planning process with MBI is free.
There are no tuition fees, but the potential reward is significant. Baker and Kennedy said the state will manage about $350 million in funding to make high-speed Internet available to all.
While there’s no deadline to apply yet, Goodman said communities will compete for funding.
“Our goal is to ensure that when state and federal funds arrive in Massachusetts to fund high-speed broadband, people are excited, prepared and able to use the technology to its fullest extent,” he said Wednesday.
“We hope that at least a quarter (of Berkshire communities), if not more, will participate,” Goodman said.
Local officials have two options for joining the planning effort. One, a “Digital Equity Charrette,” lasts from one to three months and focuses on bringing community members and leaders together with experts to figure out how more people can keep the high-speed Internet safe.
The second, a “Digital Equity Plan,” requires a deeper six to eight month dive into the needs of a community which will detail the necessary steps.