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Massachusetts on Next Phase of Broadband Equity, Access Efforts

State and local efforts to expand residential broadband to 53 un- and underserved communities have now brought full service to 44 of them and partial services to the others. The state also announced several new initiatives.

An aerial view of Shelburne, Mass.
Shelburne, Mass.
Shutterstock
Massachusetts officials met in Ashfield today to celebrate progress on efforts to extend last-mile broadband throughout western and central parts of the state, and to announce new efforts to further bridge digital divides.

The Last Mile Program initiative kicked off in 2016 and saw the state co-invest in efforts to build out broadband to 44 rural communities that had no residential broadband service and nine that had only limited service.

Kevin Donovan, chair of the Tolland Broadband Committee, recalled moving to the town in 2011 and discovering there was no cable Internet.

“The only thing we had for Internet was hot spots,” Donovan said. "Back then, they were slow. [There was] poor bandwidth, satellite latency issues — you couldn’t do any Zoom meetings."

Since then, with the help of $57 million in state funds, the effort has seen 46 of the targeted communities become fully connected, and the remaining seven are in the process of becoming the same, Gov. Charlie Baker said.
A new state map, released Dec. 1, 2022, shows progress on expanding broadband to western and central communities. 43 towns are marked as fully connected and 7 as partially so.
A new state map, released Dec. 1, 2022, shows progress on expanding broadband to western and central communities.
Massachusetts Broadband Institute
State officials and community partners are now looking to find and address final connectivity gaps and tackle other obstacles to Internet use, such as lack of the devices or digital literacy needed to navigate online.

Outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker said the state anticipates receiving about $350 million in federal funds through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law/Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other federal grants, that could be directed to addressing the digital divide. He expected about half of the funds would become available in the next few months.

“I think we've already laid a platform here and a set of toolkits around how to do this work that can be enormously helpful,” Baker said.

As the state considers how to best use the funding, it is creating a statewide digital equity plan, five-year broadband infrastructure action plan and new mapping tool intended to pinpoint remaining connectivity gaps, said Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of community development at the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. The map launched online today and the state is seeking feedback on it.

Ashley Stolba stands at podium before two broadband maps.
Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of Community Development at the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, speaks during the livestreamed event.

Screenshot
The state is also convening a broadband and digital equity working group to further support its efforts, Stolba said, with members drawn from a variety of industries. Among the current members are Emilio Dorcely, CEO of community development corporation Urban Edge; Frank Robinson, vice president of not-for-profit integrated health system Baystate Health; Denise Jordan, executive director of the Springfield Housing Authority; and Daniel Noyes of digital equity-focused nonprofit, Tech Goes Home.

Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy also highlighted two new programs.

One is the Digital Equity Partnerships Program, which “will support organizations — including regional planning agencies, philanthropic foundations, public and nonprofit service providers — to launch programs that address, enhance Internet access, digital literacy, availability of devices and education outreach efforts,” he said.

The other is a Municipal Digital Equity Planning Program aimed at helping local governments identify digital access needs — especially among those most affected by the pandemic — and plan to address them.

“These planning activities will result in strategic documents designed to guide future municipal decision-making and investments around procuring services and key community assets that will increase access and usage of the Internet, particularly for populations most impacted again by COVID-19,” Kennealy said. “These are important parts of the next iteration of the strategy.”

LAST-MILE LESSONS


Officials also took a moment to reflect on lessons learned during the steps that brought them to this point. Looking back, Baker said it was important to give municipalities options for how to tackle broadband expansion needs in their areas.

The Last Mile Program let municipalities adopt different approaches, such as locally owned networks, partnerships with private industry and collaborations across several towns.

Efforts to build out broadband infrastructure also ran into delays, in part due to lack of coordination among different providers that depended on others' efforts before they could complete their own, said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. Bringing private-sector players together for regular meetings to communicate and coordinate helped smooth out those tangles.

The ongoing effort has made real difference in people’s lives, said Donovan, who interviewed local residents about the impact. Ninety-nine percent of his 525-home town now has broadband, he said, and it’s meant people can work from home, download large files without issues, and stream video without it pausing to buffer.

“They don't have to go to the town hall or the restaurant to update their phones. … We have TV during storms now, because we don’t have satellite. You can make a phone call from anywhere in the house, instead of sitting out on the back of your pickup truck” or standing out in the front yard, Donovan said.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.