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Massachusetts Allocates $50M in ARPA Funding to Expand Internet

The $50 million in ARPA funding, which is exclusively for digital equity activities, is meant to help address those issues. The funding has to be fully committed by the end of 2024 and fully spent by the end of 2026.

(TNS) — Not having access to Internet service impacts people’s ability to get jobs, develop skills and participate in remote learning. To help address digital inequity, the state earmarked $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to boost access to broadband.

Using that funding, the Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development, working in concert with the Mass Broadband Institute, launched two programs in September — Digital Equity Partnerships Program and Municipal Digital Equity Planning.

“Digital inclusion really cuts across every aspect of society, whether its social connectivity, being able to get into the workforce and stay in the workforce, civic participation, health care access..., educational opportunities... and financial resources,” Michael Baldino, the Director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, said during a Boosting Broadcasting Webinar on Tuesday.

Baldino shared some statistics to underline his point, including that more than 80% of Fortune companies now only accept job offers online; more than a third of Americans without Internet service have difficulty creating professional resumes, contacting an employer via email or filling out an online job application and nearly one-quarter of Gateway City parents in Massachusetts reported difficulty using the computer systems required for remote learning.

The $50 million in ARPA funding, which is exclusively for digital equity activities, is meant to help address those issues, according to Baldino.

The funding has to be fully committed by the end of 2024 and fully spent by the end of 2026, Baldino said. MBI is managing the funds through a contract with the commonwealth.

Through the Digital Equity Partnerships Program, MBI is looking for 10 to 15 organizations to hep execute six initiatives that will address digital literacy; public space Internet modernization; connectivity for economic hardship; device distribution and refurbishment and education, outreach and adoption.

The goal of the six initiatives is to make sure everyone has access to the Internet, access to a device that they can use the Internet on and the necessary digital literacy to be able to use the Internet, according to Baldino.

Initiatives like connectivity for economic hardship will focus on families in transition coming out of homeless shelters. While the families might not be ready for a broadband subscription, Baldino said they can give them a hotspot as a way to fill the need until they find permanent stable housing.

There will also be a focus on educating communities about existing programs, like the Affordable Connectivity Program.

The program gives up to a $30/month discount for broadband services for eligible households, as well as a one-time discount of up to $100 for a laptop, desktop computer or table purchased through a participating provider if the household contributes more than $10 but less than $50 toward the purchase price.

Wednesday’s seminar was hosted by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, which highlighted efforts in the city to get people enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

In January 2022, Worcester adoption rate was 26% with 11,000 households enrolled, according to the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. Following an outreach campaign with Worcester Public Schools, the city’s adoption rate was 47%, or 20,000 households, at the end of August.

Worcester’s adoption rate is one of the highest in the state and above the national adoption rate of 25%, according to the Worcester Regional Research Bureau.

The organization’s 2022 Worcester Almanac provided the latest broadband data in the city, which came from the American Survey for 2022. According to that survey, 83.3% of city households have broadband access and 16.4% of city households, 11,824, lack Internet subscriptions.

The second program the Massachusetts Broadband Institute launched, Municipal Digital Equity Planning, is looking to work with municipalities like Worcester to help establish plans on how to increase access, adoption and usage of the Internet for the population most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That will include preparing municipalities to submit grant proposals for state or federal programs that support digital equity activities.

“We really urge you to sign up early and get plans because we want to have those plans feed up into our statewide plans that we’ll be developing next year and we want municipalities to be full partners in the process,” Baldino said.

Jonathan Cohen, vice president for programs and strategy for the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, said the challenge for organizations in Worcester will be to identify who can be the lead partners in applying for grant opportunities to make sure funding for digital equity comes to the city.

“It’s on us here in the county to seek out these funding opportunities and to organize the communities and to get our municipalities on board and to do that really, not rushing, but as fast as we can while this money is still available,” Cohen said.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.