The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) at MassTech has revealed the second group of municipalities that will benefit from the Commonwealth’s Municipal Digital Equity Planning Program, which provides strategic consultation to cities and towns to help them identify barriers to internet access, boost direct community engagement, and execute digital equity plans to close the digital divide.
These 27 municipalities will be able to get funding for technical assistance that will help uncover the best ways to leverage existing and potential future resources, build digital skills, and engage residents to expand internet access, affordability, and adoption in each community.
Following the announcement of the first group of 35 municipalities in early May 2023, the total number of participating municipalities in the program is now 62. This new group of participating communities represents a wide diversity of cities and towns, including the cities of Boston, Gloucester, and Lowell, to collaborations of smaller communities in Berkshire and Franklin Counties in Western Massachusetts.
“We are excited to continue to build upon the progress our organization has made in expanding broadband access and adoption in Massachusetts,” said Michael Baldino, director of the MBI. “Every community has its own set of challenges when it comes to providing robust digital access to residents. That’s why we have taken a customized approach that drills into the root causes of digital inequity for every municipality that joins this program. This supportive approach allows each municipality to chart a path that reflects their local needs and identifies the quickest way to enhance connectivity in their community.”
The Program offers two options for municipalities to engage in digital equity planning activities with the state-funded consultant: a short-term, ‘low barrier to entry’ charrette process or a more comprehensive and longer-term Digital Equity planning process. Both options provide flexibility and recognize the administrative capacities of each applicant.
This program was funded by the “Act Relative to Immediate COVID-19 Recovery Needs” legislation, which created a Broadband Innovation Fund as part of the Commonwealth’s response to the COVID-19 public health crisis.
However, this program is just one of several statewide efforts MBI has created to address broadband gaps and digital equity. In April, as part of the Digital Equity Partnerships program, MBI granted $14 million to select digital equity projects covering various state regions. The three companies spearheading those projects, Tech Goes Home, Vinfen, and BayState Health, are taking targeted, regional approaches to address connectivity gaps and increase digital literacy. Last month, the institute announced the Internet for All Listening Tour, a set of meetings and focus group sessions across the state where members of the public can share their experiences accessing the internet and tackle topics related to digital equity.
Here’s a breakdown of the cities and towns that have joined the Municipal Digital Equity Planning Program:
Becket, Washington, and Windsor
The three Berkshire County towns will work together to issue surveys and hold public meetings to identify families without equipment and premises that cannot afford broadband subscriptions. They will focus on teaching digital literacy, providing service to those who can’t afford it, and expanding existing programs that offer assistance to all residents.
Washington will build on their municipal fiber optic network by increasing their subscriber take rate. This will entail “[identifying] effective strategies to bridge the gaps between what is available and the ability for our unserved residents to maximize the benefits.” They intend to connect with lower-income families and seniors, hoping to increase utilization by 10-15%. Windsor will use “surveys and data analysis [sic] as well as outreach through the council on aging.” They will be working to provide access to mainly low-income residents over 65.
The City of Boston seeks to establish a coordinated, city-comprehensive plan that incorporates “a holistic approach to community broadband for affordable housing residents,” increases “enrollment of eligible households into the Affordable Connectivity Program,” expands “free public wifi to support low-income residents” and protects residents “from new harms that might come from being connected.” The plan's ultimate goal is to bring the percentage of households without access to less than 1%.
The Town of Bourne intends to use surveys, focus groups, mapping, and a data-rich community profile to create “a sustainable plan with explicit identification of hardware and educational resources required to ensure ongoing town-wide digital equity and inclusion needs are met.”
The City of Chicopee looks to create the first city-wide digital equity plan that “[bridges] the gaps in digital equity, ensuring the wellbeing of and equitable service to all stakeholders.” The project would focus heavily on community engagement and be led by a joint organization of various city departments.
Franklin County Cooperative (Charlemont, Colrain, Leyden, New Salem, Northfield, Orange, Warwick, and Wendell)
The Franklin County Cooperative, a combined effort of eight towns in Western Mass, will focus on four main pillars: access to technology, access to the internet, technological literacy, and cybersecurity. The group aims to “pursue a variety of outreach methods,” including public meetings, events, and surveys that engage residents of all ages. Ultimately, “through data collection, community engagement, and peer learning,” the towns collectively “hope to develop an action plan to explore models for successful internet delivery, technology availability, and digital literacy training for residents.”
The City of Gloucester’s plan of action seeks to create “a model that showcases how digital equity supports economic vitality, cultural connectedness and social engagement.” Their process will focus on “[d]ata analysis of digital equity needs mapped to economic capacity; key stakeholder focus groups; public surveys; [and] client consultations.”
Greater Lowell (Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, Dunstable, Lowell, Pepperell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, and Westford)
The Greater Lowell regional coalition recognizes the similarity of digital equity issues encountered by this group of communities. The nine municipalities will focus on addressing digital equity among lower-income individuals, seniors, people with hearing and visual impairments, and people with limited English proficiency “to better measure the relative impact of these barriers, prioritize the key roadblocks to equity in each case, and identify the specific technology or program options that can increase equity in these areas.”
The coalition’s approach would be a charrette in each community, combined with a regional planning process that “analyzes digital equity data and completes community visioning;[p]rovides a baseline overview of digital access and equity gaps affecting various populations; and creates a suite of recommendations that could be funded” through emerging federal investment programs.
The City of Greenfield will form a Digital Equity Planning committee that will work with MBI and the Commonwealth-funded consultant to “map out…existing citywide digital equity assets and conduct a community-centered needs assessment of the existing internet services, reliability, customer satisfaction, and affordability, as well as the infrastructure status of the targeted apartment buildings to form a realistic analysis of internet connectivity and function.”
The ultimate goal is to “lay the groundwork for long-term investments [and] to reach digital equity for all of Greenfield.”
The Town of Sandwich will implement a plan focusing on public meetings and surveys that measure “the impact digital inequality has on our local education systems.” With the data collected, the town intends to “create an action targeting the most vulnerable user group and offer solutions through our library, senior center, center for active living, and school.”
Winchendon: Winchendon is seeking to develop a plan that identifies where the town’s residents who “are unserved/underserved with no internet/broadband access” live in the community and those “in need of financial assistance, those that might need training and creating an action plan that can be used to apply for upcoming grant initiatives to put the plan into action.” The Town will identify those who lack access through “surveys, public meetings, [and] specific data analysis.”