Western Mass. group gets $5.1 million to address ‘digital divide’ in skills, devices and fiber coverage
Published: Apr 27, 2023
By Jim Kinney | firstname.lastname@example.org
SPRINGFIELD – Starting next week, high school and college students will start helping senior citizens connect to the internet, taking advantage, perhaps for the first time, of the web’s wealth of life tools.
The step will start with four internet guides, but could expand to 60 as part of a broad state project to remove barriers to internet access.
“If we train 60 young people, we can reach 400 seniors,” said Frank Robinson, vice president of public health at Baystate Health. “This is an intergenerational exchange.”
Called Cyber Seniors, the pilot program begins May 6 at the Palmer Public Library. The training is one program of a new effort, led by Baystate Health Systems.
The Western Massachusetts Alliance for Digital Equity, as it is known, will receive $5.1 million from the state’s Digital Equity Partnerships Program. Elders will be able, once trained, to avail themselves telehealth, online benefit applications, email and other internet programs that most people consider indispensible.
On Thursday, Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao visited Springfield to announce $14 million in grants aimed to close the state’s digital divide. She spoke at the Tech Foundry job skills training program.
The term digital divide once referred only to the lack of high-speed internet service in rural areas. But it now covers any skills gap that keeps people from accessing the technology, or any device gap or lack of computers or computer access.
The Digital Equity Partnerships Program was launched in September 2022 with a $50 million fund to narrow the digital divide in the state. According to a news release, the program works with partners on six program areas to expand connectivity options.
The money comes from the state’s share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act, COVID recovery legislation of 2021.
“Broadband access is part of the puzzle. But only part of the puzzle. Having fiber on your street is just part of the battle,” said Michael Baldino, director and general counsel for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.
The rest of that puzzle lies in missing skills and tech devices.
The state has made significant progress bringing broadband into underserved areas, Baldino said. Back in 2016 there were 44 towns – mostly in western and central Massachusetts — without access to high-speed internet. Now, projects are completed in 37 of the 44 and are underway in the remaining municipalities.
In Springfield, despite years of effort, 54% of the city’s residents are without reliable internet connection, said Roger W. Crandall, chairman, president and CEO of MassMutual and co-chair of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership’s Innovation Committee.
Baystate Health is involved, Robinson said, because internet access is connected with a person’s health and well-being. No internet means no telemedicine, no online appointment scheduling and less access to education.
“It is a civil right,” Robinson said. “It is a human right.”
The projects fall into broad categories. Participating organizations will establish and administer projects in one or more of the following program areas:
- Digital Literacy Initiative – $2,299,235 for digital literacy training programs.
- Connectivity Initiative for Economic Hardship – $689,313 for broadband connectivity to vulnerable populations through the provision of Wi-Fi cellular hot spots.
- Public Space Internet Modernization Initiative – $813,221 for improvements to inadequate broadband infrastructure and digital use in public spaces and increase daily use and services.
- Outreach and Enrollment – $1,347,693 for breaking down barriers to broadband adoption. This includes increasing the number of western Massachusetts residents participating in the Digital Equity Partnership Initiative programs and the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program. This outreach will involve in-person workshops, call center phone banking, door-to-door outreach, online or printed communications and public service announcements.