SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – During an event at The Tech Foundry in Springfield Thursday, leaders from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Economic Development and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) announced $14 million in new grants from the state’s Digital Equity Partnerships Program.
According to a news release from Massachusetts Broadband Institute, the three grants were announced by Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao, who highlighted the selected projects from Tech Goes Home, which will receive $4.5 million; Vinfen, on behalf of the Human Services Alliance for Digital Equity, will receive $4.3 million; and Baystate Health, on behalf of the Western MA Alliance for Digital Equity, will receive $5.1 million.
“Massachusetts has a real opportunity to close the digital divide and ensure all people in our state can participate in the digital economy,” said Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao. “These grants will help residents build their digital skills and get online affordably, thereby expanding their connections to job and training opportunities, healthcare resources, social connections, and so much more. We are grateful to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute for its work to make affordable high-speed internet available to residents across the state.”
As part of the event, business and nonprofit leaders from across the state highlighted the critical need for increased digital connectivity for residents statewide, an issue that grew in importance during COVID-19. Following the secretary’s remarks, Mass Mutual Financial Group Chairman President & CEO Roger Crandall spoke on the issue, appearing as a board member. The Competitive Partnership released a report in 2022 called “Connecting Communities through Digital Equity” that highlights how important it is to address digital equity statewide.
“Internet access is a crucial driver of economic and social advancement – from fostering innovation and creating new jobs to utilizing government and community services,” said Crandall. “Yet far too many households in Massachusetts lack broadband service, creating a significant barrier to many career and educational opportunities. The business community has a collective responsibility to help address this inequity by continuing to invest in and expand access to digital infrastructure, literacy programs, and affordable digital tools for all residents throughout the Commonwealth.”
It included a roundtable discussion with executives from the three organizations, discussing the challenges Massachusetts citizens face each day and the projects that were awarded. Digital equity projects will be developed and implemented across the state for two years.
“This historic funding will enable Tech Goes Home to meaningfully expand our proven digital equity programming in more than a dozen communities statewide,” said Dan Noyes, CEO of Tech Goes Home, “and it will allow us to deepen our support for community-based organizations working to advance digital equity for the people they serve. We are grateful for the increased, direct investment that reflects the urgency of closing the digital divide and ensuring that more people in Massachusetts have access to the digital tools, internet access, and culturally-responsive training they need to take full advantage of the opportunities and resources afforded by the digital world.”
“On behalf of the Human Services Alliance for Digital Equity, we are thrilled to be awarded one of the first round Digital Equity grants,” said Kim Shellenberger, Vinfen’s Chief Strategy Officer. “In today’s world, technology access and digital skills are no longer a luxury and this grant will enable our organizations to provide crucial support services to reduce the digital divide among people with disabilities and people with mental health challenges.”
“The genesis of the Alliance for Digital Equity in June 2020 was a direct response to digital disparity (not new) and our societal dependence on the internet to address meeting basic material needs the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced,” said Dr. Frank Robinson, Vice President – Public Health at Baystate Health. “It was embarrassingly obvious that digital marginalization for already marginalized people would exacerbate negative health outcomes, economic oppression, and racial injustice. Digital equity and inclusion are truly a ‘super social determinant of health,’ critical to our meaningful progress toward health equity and satisfying basic human rights in this connected society, linking people to vital resources, such as jobs, education, health care, food, and information.”
The Digital Equity Partnerships Program launched in September 2022 with the goal of identifying qualified organizations to implement projects that meet the goals outlined in the Commonwealth’s ARPA COVID recovery legislation (Chapter 102 of the Acts of 2021), which created a $50 million fund to bridge the digital divide. Through the program, partners will work in six key areas to expand connectivity options:
- WiFi Access
- Public Space Internet Modernization
- Connectivity Initiative for Economic Hardship
- Digital Literacy
- Device Distribution and Refurbishment
- Education, Outreach, and Adoption
“Access to the internet is no longer optional in today’s world, providing education opportunities, access to employment, telehealth care, and so much more,” said State Senator Michael Moore, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity. “I’m thrilled that the Executive Office of Economic Development and MassTech has announced these grants to expand connectivity to more Bay Staters and fund critical programs to address disparities in digital literacy.”
“I am thrilled to see that Baystate Health, in partnership with the Western Massachusetts Alliance for Digital Equity, has been recognized by the Commonwealth’s Digital Equity Partnership Program and received a grant of $5.1 million to continue addressing the digital divide,” said State Senator Jo Comerford. “Thank you to Secretary Hao and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute for their leadership in tackling persistent and inequitable connectivity challenges.”
“The funds created by the ARPA COVID recovery legislation of 2021 represented a momentous step towards bridging the digital equity divide for Western Massachusetts. There are far too many unserved communities in this region of the Commonwealth who do not have simple access to Wi-Fi,” said State Senator Adam Gomez. “Communities in this region will now have substantially increased access to not only Wi-Fi, but also support for key programming areas such as digital literacy, public space internet modernization, and connectivity initiatives for economic hardship. Eliminating the digital equity divide in Western Mass is absolutely crucial to supporting a thriving economy. I’m thrilled to hear about today’s announcement and look forward to seeing this funding implemented!”
“I am thrilled to see $14 million in new grants from the Executive Office of Economic Development,” said Chair Tricia Farley-Bouvier, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Advanced Information Technology, the Internet and Cybersecurity. “The funding from these grants is critical for my district, the Berkshires, and the rest of Western Massachusetts where internet access is not guaranteed, and the digital divide is vast.”
“While the state has made great strides to improve broadband and Wi-Fi access, there are still communities in the 1st Hampshire district that have been left behind, public housing that remains unwired, and towns that don’t know how to fund projects that would level the playing field for all their residents,” said State Representative Lindsay Sabadosa. “The Digital Equity Partnership Program will assist these communities, providing important funding and assistance in learning how to incorporate this technology into their daily lives.”
“I want to thank Governor Maura Healey and her administration, and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute at Mass Tech for their efforts and commitment to helping to connect more individuals to the internet and close the digital divide many residents experience,” stated Mayor Domenic J. Sarno of the City of Springfield. “My administration is proud to support the Commonwealth’s Digital Equity Partnership Program, a new initiative from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute at MassTech, which aims to assist community partners and organizations so that they can connect with residents and households through digital equity projects that will work to eliminate and mitigate the barriers faced in accessing digital equity and help close the digital divide. Access to affordable and reliable internet is essential for our residents and achieving this goal will not only enhance the quality of life for many but will also help advance vital economic development projects and educational initiatives not only here in Springfield but across the Commonwealth.”
The state’s digital equity programs build on initiatives launched in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis, like public Wi-Fi hotspots in unserved towns in western and central Massachusetts. The Mass Internet Connect program, which worked with MassHire to help unemployed people get back to work, was another initiative of the state. To help Massachusetts communities build a broad understanding of how residents are being affected by lack of internet access, the MBI has launched a Municipal Digital Equity Planning Program. In addition, a Broadband and Digital Equity Working Group consists of stakeholders across the state who will provide key technical expertise and representation of target populations to inform the makeup and focus of state programs.
“Our partner organizations are leaders in the digital equity field and have cultivated an incredible network of local stakeholders who will ensure these funds have maximum benefit to the communities they are designed to serve,” said Michael Baldino, MBI director. “Today’s grants, coupled with our municipal planning program and the engagement of our dedicated working group members, will ensure that the dollars invested lead to the desired impact – more residents will not only gain access to devices, digital skills, and more affordable internet, they will have access to a wider range of social, educational, and healthcare resources.”
The MBI also oversees the state’s Last Mile program, which has invested over $57 million in direct state grants to connect residents to high-speed internet infrastructure in 53 unserved or underserved communities. MassBroadband 123 is the owner of a 1,200-mile fiber-optic middle-mile network in Western and North Central Massachusetts that provides critical infrastructure for public facilities and high-speed broadband networks.