Mass Broadband poised to help Gateway Cities win the future
The Gateway Cities Journal
The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) issued a much-anticipated RFP for the Digital Equity Partnership Program last week. Drawing on resources from the state’s new Digital Equity Fund, the program will support a number of key strategies to close the digital divide, including:
- Digital literacy training programs to help residents build skills to use digital technologies;
- Efforts to distribute computers and other devices to underserved residents;
- Free WiFi in affordable housing developments;
- Free WiFi in public spaces, such as libraries, community centers, and commercial corridors; and
- Outreach to help residents take advantage of digital literacy training and low-cost internet service plans.
These funds can go to regional planning agencies, community foundations, public and nonprofit internet services providers, and other nonprofits in a position to advance digital equity. Digital equity coalitions or other partnerships with a lead agency may also apply.
The Digital Equity Partnership Program aligns closely with the recommendations outlined in MassINC’s digital equity policy blueprint. With the creation of a Municipal Digital Equity Planning Program, MBI is also advancing the most urgent recommendation in the blueprint. Cities will be able to access skilled consultants to help assess their needs and develop comprehensive digital equity strategies. These plans will then roll up into the state digital equity plan and help determine how Massachusetts allocates the large windfall it will receive for broadband through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The resources MBI will be deploying in the coming months present a transformative opportunity for Gateway Cities. Digital technology has increasingly large implications for education, workforce development, health and wellbeing, and housing and economic development. With these dollars, burgeoning digital equity efforts in a number of Gateway Cities will be able to expand and deepen their work. Gateway Cities that have yet to develop digital equity strategies can now access funding and support to launch robust efforts without further delay.
The creation of a fellows program for digital equity is the only near-term MassINC recommendation that MBI has yet to adopt. As we survey the landscape, three-year fellowship positions modeled on MassDevelopment’s TDI Initiative appear to be more critical than ever. Staff capacity is severely constrained in municipal governments. Even on a good day, few Gateway Cities have personnel on hand with expertise in digital equity issues.A fellows program run by a sophisticated, statewide quasi-public agency will have the reach necessary to recruit, train, and support professionals who can lead comprehensive digital equity campaigns. In the coming years, broadband investments will occur alongside other infrastructure upgrades in Gateway Cities. Anyone that has attempted to address more than one utility when digging up city streets will tell you that this coordination is complex and extremely timing consuming. Staff with infrastructure expertise and the ability to lead cross-functional teams will be more in demand than ever. With a strong fellowship program, MBI can put Gateway City governments in a better position to win the future.
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