PITTSFIELD — Closing the digital divide in Western Massachusetts over the past decade has meant getting fiber, cable or wireless service to every address.
Today, the border is not geographical.
With nearly all of the “last mile” connections complete, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has moved in recent months to efforts to help Massachusetts households overcome other barriers to access.
Locally, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is helping cities and towns navigate new reservoirs of financial and technical assistance. More than half of Berkshires communities expressed initial interest by participating in the presentation through the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
“We believe the early interest from the cities of Berkshire County sets us up well for the next rounds of state or federal funding in areas we may otherwise have overlooked,” said Wylie Goodman, the commission’s senior economic development planner.
Last week, Baker and other top state officials arrived in the region to celebrate the six-year-old last-mile broadband project. Speakers at the event in Ashfield looked both forward and backward.
Michael Kennealy, secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said the new Digital Efficiency Planning Program under the Massachusetts Broadband Institute will help cities and towns combat how gaps in physical Internet access affect people in their communities.
The new program will teach municipalities ways to make significant money.
“These are important pieces of the next iteration of the strategy, which is about $350 million in state and federal funding,” Kennealy said at Ashfield.
In Berkshire County, Goodman is reaching out to every community, encouraging them to apply to join MBI in planning a digital capital.
The point? Finding ways to expand broadband access to marginalized people—people who are disadvantaged by not participating in today’s dominant communication tool.
Barriers can be cost, lack of digital literacy and basic technology skills, language or the right devices.
“We still have gaps, and they’re not just here, they’re all over the state,” Ashley Stolba, adviser to the secretary of housing and economic development, told the Ashfield gathering. “We’re doing a ton of work thinking about how we’re going to spend that $350 million. We implement planning, applications, strategy.”
MBI says the strategies identified by individual cities will guide the state’s overall digital capital plan and influence how federal infrastructure money is spent.
Housing and economic development Secretary Kennealy said last week that the Digital Capital Planning Program will set the table for those future investments.
The state says helping those most affected by the pandemic remains the primary goal.
For the completed last mile project, the state allocated $57 million to help residents in 53 underserved cities. Now, broader digital equity efforts are opening that playing field to every community in Massachusetts.
That’s why Goodman is urging Berkshires municipal leaders to make a choice 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 will administer about $350 million in funding to make high-speed Internet available to all.
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 come into Massachusetts to fund high-speed broadband, people are excited and prepared and able to take full advantage of the technology,” he said.
“We would hope that at least a quarter (of Berkshires communities), if not more, would participate,” Goodman said.
There are two ways for local officials to join the planning effort. One, the “Digital Equity Charrette,” lasts from one to three months and focuses on bringing community members and leaders together with experts to determine how more people can get high-speed Internet.
The second, the “Digital Capital Plan,” requires a six- to eight-month in-depth look at the community’s needs that will detail the steps needed.