Lack of access to Internet services affects people’s ability to find employment, develop skills and participate in distance learning. To help address digital inequality, the state has earmarked $50 million to fund the American Rescue Plan Act to improve broadband access.
With this funding, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, in conjunction with the Mass Broadband Institute, launched two programs in September – the Digital Equity Partnerships Program and Municipal Digital Equity Planning.
“Digital inclusion really touches all aspects of society, whether it’s social connectivity, the ability to enter and stay in the labor market, civic participation, access to health care…, educational opportunities… and financial resources,” Michael Baldino, director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, said during a Boosting Broadcasting webinar on Tuesday.
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Baldino shared a few stats to underscore his point, including that over 80% of Fortune companies now only accept online job offers; more than a third of Americans without internet service have difficulty creating professional resumes, contacting an employer by email or completing an online job application and nearly a quarter of parents in Gateway City in the Massachusetts reported difficulty using the computer systems needed for distance learning.
ARPA’s $50 million in funding, which is exclusively for digital equity activities, is intended to help address these issues, according to Baldino.
Funding must be fully committed by the end of 2024 and fully spent by the end of 2026, Baldino said. MBI manages the funds through a contract with the Commonwealth.
Under the Digital Equity Partnerships Program, MBI is seeking 10-15 organizations to help execute six initiatives that will address digital literacy; the modernization of the internet in the public space; connectivity for economic hardship; distribution and refurbishment of devices and education, awareness and adoption.
The goal of the six initiatives is to ensure everyone has access to the internet, a device they can use the internet on, and the digital literacy needed to be able to use the internet, according to Baldino.
Initiatives like Connectivity for Economic Hardship will focus on transitioning families coming out of homeless shelters. While families may not be ready for a broadband subscription, Baldino said they can give them a hotspot to meet their needs until they find permanent stable housing.
Emphasis will also be placed on sensitizing communities to existing programs, such as the affordable connectivity program.
The program offers up to $30/month in broadband rebates for eligible households, as well as a one-time rebate of up to $100 for a laptop, desktop or table purchased from a participating supplier if the household contributes more than $10 but less than $50 of the purchase price.
Wednesday’s seminar was hosted by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, which highlighted efforts in the city to enroll people in the Affordable Connectivity Program.
As of January 2022, Worcester’s adoption rate was 26% with 11,000 households registered, according to the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. Following an awareness campaign with Worcester Public Schools, the city’s adoption rate was 47%, or 20,000 homes, by the end of August.
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Worcester’s adoption rate is one of the highest in the state and higher than the national adoption rate of 25%, according to the Worcester Regional Research Bureau.
The organization’s Worcester Almanac 2022 provided the latest data on broadband in the city, which comes from the US survey for 2022. According to this survey, 83.3% of households in the city have broadband access and 16.4% of the city’s households, 11,824, do not have an Internet subscription.
The second program launched by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, Municipal Digital Equity Planning, seeks to work with municipalities like Worcester to help establish plans on how to increase access, adoption and use of the Internet for population most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This will include preparing municipalities to submit grant proposals for state or federal programs that support digital equity activities.
“We really urge you to register early and get plans because we want those plans to be part of our statewide plans that we will be developing next year and we want municipalities to be partners. fully involved in the process,” Baldino said.
Jonathan Cohen, vice president of programs and strategy for the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, said the challenge for organizations in Worcester will be identifying who can be key partners in applying for grant opportunities to help themselves. ensuring that digital equity funding arrives in the city.
“It’s up to us here in the county to seek out those funding opportunities and organize the communities and get our municipalities involved and really do it, not rush, but as quickly as possible while that money is still available. “, Cohen said.