Positioning Gateway City leaders to take the lead on digital equity

The Gateway Cities Journal

Positioning Gateway City leaders to take the lead on digital equity

When congress passed the Digital Equity Act as part of the larger bipartisan infrastructure law last November, it defined digital equity as the condition in which individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States. By making “communities” central to the definition, Congress sought to further our appreciation for just how critical digital equity has become to strong and vital cities.

Coordinated digital equity strategies can fuel community economic development, just as they can further individual economic mobility and wellbeing. They are a tool to grow our small businesses, train a skilled workforce, and build social connections throughout neighborhoods.

While leaders responded to their residents’ most acute digital equity needs during the pandemic, the issue appears to be receding among the many competing challenges facing Gateway Cities. We can’t allow this to fall out of sight again, especially with half a billion dollars from the federal infrastructure bill coming to Massachusetts to help communities implement durable solutions.

Increasing digital equity means providing universal access to high-speed internet, ensuring that all households have capable computing devices, awareness as to how these technologies can benefit them, and the skills to employ the technologies to further their aspirations and needs.

Data unearthed in this new report shows about half of Gateway City residents either don’t have internet at all, or they have it, but their connection isn’t up to the task. One way to help households get better service is to take advantage of the new permanent federal subsidy program created by the infrastructure bill. Take up of the emergency benefit created to help families weather the pandemic was extremely low in Gateway Cities. Getting more households online will require community-based campaigns to increase awareness and build trust in internet service providers (many low-income households are fearful of teaser-rates or other unknowns that could lead them to become indebted).

MassINC’s new report, prepared jointly with the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, presents strategies to close the digital divide. Empowering municipal leaders to craft community-based solutions is the crux of the strategy. Three recommendations are particularly critical to expediting this effort:

Number one is forming a mayor and managers institute to ensure that Gateway City leaders have access to the latest information and a venue for exchange. Mayors and managers are best-positioned to lead a multidimensional response in each region of the state; rallying the community and coalescing diverse groups to solve common challenges is what they do best.

Second, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) must provide Gateway Cities with resources and technical assistance to craft robust digital equity plans. From education to health care, addressing these cross-cutting challenges will require coordination across sectors. To leverage local resources and partnerships, every Gateway City region must have a detailed strategy and plan for execution.

Finally, MBI needs to ensure that each Gateway City region has a Digital Equity Fellow who can get this coordinated digital equity strategy off the ground quickly, and staff the effort day-to-day as communities work to deploy federal funding over the next several years.

Last fall, the legislature provided MBI with $50 million from ARPA to undertake activities like these. The agency should be announcing plans to begin granting these resources soon. While we don’t know exactly how MBI will structure the first solicitation, it is likely that there will be ample room for requests that allow communities to build capacity for planning and executing robust digital equity campaigns. These funds will put Gateway Cities in a position to lead.

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