PITTSFIELD – Over the past decade in Western Massachusetts, closing the digital divide meant getting fiber, cable, or wireless service to every address.
Today, the border is not geographical.
With nearly all “last mile” connections completed, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has turned in its final months to efforts to help Massachusetts households overcome other barriers to access. .
Locally, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is helping towns and cities get on the path to new pools of financial and technical aid. More than half a dozen Berkshires communities expressed initial interest by attending a presentation through the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
“We believe Berkshire County towns that show interest early 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. .
Last week, Baker and other top state officials came to the area to celebrate the six-year last mile broadband project. Speakers at the event, held at Ashfield, eagerly awaited and returned.
Michael Kennealy, secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said a new digital equity planning program at the Massachusetts Broadband Institute will help cities and towns address how gaps in real Internet access affects people in their communities.
The new program will show municipalities how to tap into important sources of money.
“These are important parts of the next iteration of the strategy, which represents 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.
Point? Find ways to extend broadband access to the people who stay away – the people who remain disadvantaged by not taking part in today’s dominant communication tool.
The barrier could be cost, digital literacy and basic technical skills, language or not having the right devices.
“We still have gaps, and they’re not just here, they’re all over the state,” Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of housing and economic development, said at the Ashfield meeting. “We’re doing a ton of work as we think about how we’re going to spend that $350 million. We do the planning, we do the applications, we do the strategy.
The MBI says the strategies set by each city will guide the state’s overall digital equity plan — and influence how federal infrastructure money is spent.
Kennealy, the housing and economic development secretary, said last week that the digital equity planning program will set the stage for these future investments.
Helping those most affected by the pandemic remains a top priority, according to the state.
For the final mile project that is winding down, the state has allocated $57 million to help residents of 53 unserved cities. Now, the broader digital equity effort opens up that playground to every community in Massachusetts.
For this reason, Goodman is urging Berkshires civic leaders to sign up now. The planning process with MBI is free.
There is no entry fee, but the potential reward is significant. Baker and Kennealy said the state would manage about $350 million in funding to make high-speed internet available to everyone.
Although there is no deadline to apply yet, Goodman said communities will compete for funding.
“Our goal is to ensure that when state and federal funds flow into Massachusetts to fund high-speed broadband, people are excited, prepared and able to make full use of the technology,” she said Wednesday. .
“We’re hoping at least a quarter (of Berkshires communities), if not more, will participate,” Goodman said.
Local officials have two options for joining the planning effort. One, a “digital equity charrette,” lasts one to three months and focuses on connecting community members and leaders with experts to determine how more people can secure high-speed internet. .
The second, a “digital equity plan,” calls for a six- to eight-month in-depth analysis of a community’s needs that will detail the steps needed.
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