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Bridging the Divide

Leaders from the Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Economic Development and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) at MassTech recently announced $14 million in new grants from the state’s Digital Equity Partnership Program to address statewide digital-equity gaps during an event at Tech Foundry in Springfield.

The three grants were announced by Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao, who highlighted selected projects from Tech Goes Home, which will receive $4.5 million; Vinfen, on behalf of the Human Services Alliance for Digital Equity, which will receive $4.3 million; and Baystate Health, on behalf of the Western Massachusetts Alliance for Digital Equity, which will receive $5.1 million.

“Massachusetts has a real opportunity to close the digital divide and ensure all people in our state can participate in the digital economy,” Hao said. “These grants will help residents build their digital skills and get online affordably, thereby expanding their connections to job and training opportunities, healthcare resources, social connections, and so much more. We are grateful to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute for its work to make affordable high-speed internet available to residents across the state.”

The secretary was joined at the event by business and nonprofit leaders from across the state, highlighting the critical need for increased digital connectivity for residents statewide, an issue that grew in importance during the COVID-19 public-health crisis. Following the secretary’s remarks, MassMutual Chairman, President, and CEO Roger Crandall spoke about the issue, appearing in his role as a board member of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, which published a report last year titled “Connecting Communities through Digital Equity,” highlighting the importance of addressing digital equity statewide.

“Internet access is a crucial driver of economic and social advancement, from fostering innovation and creating new jobs to utilizing government and community services,” Crandall said. “Yet, far too many households in Massachusetts lack broadband service, creating a significant barrier to many career and educational opportunities. The business community has a collective responsibility to help address this inequity by continuing to invest in and expand access to digital infrastructure, literacy programs, and affordable digital tools for all residents throughout the Commonwealth.”

The event included a roundtable discussion with executives from the three grant-recipient organizations, which pointed to the digital-equity challenges Massachusetts citizens face each day and how the awarded projects aim to increase connectivity and access. The grants will support two years of critical digital-equity project development and implementation across the state.

“The genesis of the Alliance for Digital Equity in June 2020 was a direct response to digital disparity — not new — and our societal dependence on the internet to address to meeting basic material needs as the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced,” said Dr. Frank Robinson, vice president of Public Health at Baystate Health. “It was embarrassingly obvious that digital marginalization for already-marginalized people would exacerbate negative health outcomes, economic oppression, and racial injustice. Digital equity and inclusion is truly a super-social determinant of health, critical to our meaningful progress toward health equity and satisfying basic human rights in this connected society, linking people to vital resources, such as jobs, education, healthcare, food, and information.”

The Digital Equity Partnerships Program was launched in September 2022 with the goal of designating qualified organizations to implement projects that meet the goals outlined in the Commonwealth’s ARPA COVID recovery legislation, which created a $50 million fund to bridge the digital divide in the state.

“I am thrilled to see that Baystate Health, in partnership with the Western Massachusetts Alliance for Digital Equity, have been recognized by the Commonwealth’s Digital Equity Partnership Program and received a grant of $5.1 million to continue addressing the digital divide,” state Sen. Jo Comerford said.

State Sen. Adam Gomez added that “the funds created by the ARPA COVID recovery legislation of 2021 represented a momentous step toward bridging the digital-equity divide for Western Massachusetts. There are far too many unserved communities in this region of the Commonwealth who do not have simple access to WiFi. Communities in this region will now have substantially increased access to not only WiFi, but also support for key programming areas such as digital literacy, public-space internet modernization, and connectivity initiatives for economic hardship. Eliminating the digital-equity divide in Western Mass. is absolutely crucial to supporting a thriving economy.”

While the state has made trides to improve broadband and WiFi access, state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa noted, many communities have been left behind, much public housing remains unwired, and towns that don’t know how to fund projects that would level the playing field for all residents. “The Digital Equity Partnership Program will assist these communities, providing important funding and assistance in learning how to incorporate this technology into their daily lives.”

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said the Digital Equity Partnership Program will help eliminate or mitigate the barriers faced in accessing digital equity and help close the digital divide. “Access to affordable and reliable internet is essential for our residents, and achieving this goal will not only enhance the quality of life for many, but will also help advance vital economic-development projects and educational initiatives, not only here in Springfield, but across the Commonwealth.”

The state’s digital-equity programs build on initiatives launched in response to the COVID-19 public-health crisis, which included public WiFi hotspots in unserved towns in Western and Central Mass., as well as the Mass Internet Connect program, which worked with MassHire to provide financial support and digital-literacy tools to help get unemployed residents back to work.

The MBI has also launched a Municipal Digital Equity Planning Program to support Massachusetts communities with planning activities that will help build a broad understanding of how a lack of internet access is impacting residents in their community, as well as a Broadband and Digital Equity Working Group comprised of stakeholders from across the state that will inform the makeup and focus of state programs, providing key technical expertise and representation of target populations.

“Our partner organizations are leaders in the digital-equity field and have cultivated an incredible network of local stakeholders who will ensure these funds have maximum benefit to the communities they are designed to serve,” said Michael Baldino, MBI director. “Today’s grants, coupled with our municipal planning program and the engagement of our dedicated working-group members, will ensure that the dollars invested lead to the desired impact — more residents will not only gain access to devices, digital skills, and more affordable internet, they will have access to a wider range of social, educational, and healthcare resources.”