According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), “Digital Equity is a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy. Digital Equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.” The lack of digital equity impacts our society in profound ways – hindering our citizens’ access to economic prosperity, health care, educational attainment, and civic and social engagement.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought heightened attention to the importance of broadband access and adoption in almost every facet of daily life. Access to affordable broadband service is no longer considered a luxury, but an essential utility. The need for broadband in the 21st century is often compared to the need for electricity or phone service in previous centuries. Achieving digital equity in the Commonwealth is a critically important goal for our future prosperity.
See Massachusetts Broadband Strategic Plan for more.
The questions in the application are there to 1) determine eligibility and 2) provide a sense of the applying municipality’s goals for participation. The reason for applying can be as simple as wanting to gain a better understanding of needs and existing resources or programs. One of the great things about this program is that every consultant will begin the process with an Existing Conditions Report, which will analyze all available data pertaining to digital equity for a specific municipality to establish a baseline.
MBI has prequalified nine consultants to participate in this program. All consultants participating in this program are under contract with MBI. There is no flow of money from MBI to the municipalities, eliminating the burdens of procurement and grant management for participating cities/towns.
This planning grant cannot be used for infrastructure planning (i.e. technical engineering, municipal network design, municipal i-net planning, etc.). However, the planning grant can and should be used to inform a municipality of provider market conditions, challenges/barriers to internet adoption, quality of service analysis, and discrete strategies a municipality can take to increase adoption of broadband and successful use. Additionally, planning grants can and should be used to identify priorities for municipal investment through existing or future city, state, or federal programs.
These plans should also identify gaps in connectivity and provide recommendations to look into other MBI programs that can support infrastructure, such as the Last Mile Infrastructure Grant Program.
Example: A municipality identifies that a high percentage of affordable housing residents lack an internet subscription and seeks to implement WiFi in affordable housing developments via MBI’s Digital Equity Partnerships Program.
This program is designed to help municipalities prepare to secure future funding to implement the recommendations set forth in the final plan document. While there is no penalty for not participating (all communities with eligible populations are eligible to apply for future funding regardless of participation in this program), having a digital equity plan places municipalities in a much better position to apply for and secure funding because of the high-level data analysis and set of recommendations that will be included in the plan.
MBI’s research and programs have found that municipalities with plans are more likely to successfully secure implementation funds because they have identified problems, secured support, and identified potential solutions. MBI will work to coordinate recommendations and priorities from municipal plans with its Digital Equity Partnerships program and Statewide Digital Equity Plan.
An additional resource for municipalities to consider is Lead For America’s American Connection Corps, supported in part by MBI. MBI also has Recovery Plan Programs to boost internet connectivity statewide - Mass Internet Connect and WiFi Hotspots in Unserved Communities.
MBI encourages regional collaboration at all scales. It may be a particular benefit to smaller municipalities as they will be able to leverage each other’s resources and establish regional solutions. Municipalities that are interested in collaborating on a digital equity plan should coordinate with other municipalities that they would like to partner with to ensure alignment. Regional planning agencies are also playing a key role in this coordination.
Regional applications can be submitted by one lead entity (i.e. individual filling out the form) but must include a Letter of Support from each municipal CEO, and at least one lead contact for each municipality. Regional Planning Agencies may submit an application on behalf of a regional collaboration.
Examples of successful regionalized efforts include a group of nearby municipalities in Northern Berkshire County (Adams, North Adams, Cheshire, Florida, Lanesborough), and another group in Southern Berkshire County (Sheffield, Lee, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, West Stockbridge), of which the first 4 listed towns share the same Cable Advisory Board. While RPAs are playing a coordinating role in this type of collaboration, collaborative efforts are not limited to towns within the same county. For example, a municipality might share common features or interests with municipalities in a neighboring county and decide to coordinate with them.
Municipalities will indicate a desired start date in the application and MBI will work expeditiously to align the process with desired start dates. Factors such as consultant availability, application review, and others may impact this process.
While some RPA’s are pre-qualified consultants, there is no rule that any municipality must work with its respective RPA. The RPAs are aware of this program and we expect that they are promoting it to the cities and towns they work with. We are also working with RPA’s to encourage and support regional collaboration but there is no expectation that they will have to be the chosen consultant for the program.
Regional Planning Agencies may apply on behalf of any municipality but municipalities will still have to vet options and select a consultant independent of RPA involvement.
Under the Digital Equity Partnerships Program, MBI seeks to designate approximately 10-15 Partners as qualified organizations that can implement a suite of digital equity projects that meet the goals outlined in the state’s “ARPA 1.0” legislation.
Partners will be expected to work with organizations such as community development corporations (CDCs), community-based organizations (CBOs), municipalities and municipal agencies, public housing authorities, community colleges, local and regional school districts, healthcare and telehealth organizations (including federally qualified community health centers), and other entities as sub-awardees to implement digital equity projects in six program areas:
- WiFi Access Initiative
- Public Space Internet Modernization Initiative
- Connectivity Initiative for Economic Hardship
- Digital Literacy Initiative
- Device Distribution and Refurbishment Program
- Education, Outreach, and Adoption
MBI will work to coordinate partnership activities with municipalities participating in a plan to identify opportunities for implementation funding or ongoing collaboration.
MBI will work closely with all municipalities and consultants participating in this program and will work to facilitate resolutions to any conflicts that may arise during the process.