What is Digital Equity?
Most people rely on the Internet to conduct daily business, whether connecting with family, paying bills, speaking with a doctor, looking for a job, or working or attending school remotely. Digital equity means having the ability to do those activities and more reliably, affordably, and confidently. When individuals have digital equity, they can access the Internet at broadband speed (defined by the FCC as 25Mbps to upload data and 3Mpbs to download) while keeping within their individual or household budget. Once online, those with digital equity also have the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the Web with ease.
In Massachusetts, Digital Equity planning activities are coordinated through the MassTech Collaborative and Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI). BRPC is involved in several projects related to Digital Equity in Berkshire County. These include:
Municipal Digital Equity Planning Services
BRPC is pre-qualified to support municipalities in their Digital Equity Planning. Municipal Digital Equity Plans will guide municipal decision-making and investments that increase access, adoption, and use of the Internet for those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, among them:
• Low-income households
• Aging populations
• Incarcerated individuals
• People with disabilities
• People with language barriers
• Racial and ethnic minorities
• Rural inhabitants
Planning also prepares municipalities to apply for existing or future grant programs that support digital equity.
Digital Equity Planning can involve either an intensive workshop (charrette) at which municipal leaders, community-based organizations, and residents share feedback about their digital equity needs, gaps, and assets during a half- or full-day session, OR, a full Digital Equity Plan, which can take from six months to a year to complete and requires gathering and analyzing data; administering surveys; conducting focus groups; and interviewing a broad range of stakeholders to understand the town’s needs and make strategic recommendations that inform funding requests.
Municipal Digital Equity Plans will also inform the Commonwealth’s Statewide Digital Equity Plan, which is required for the State to seek funding under The Digital Equity Act. The Digital Equity Act provides $2.75 billion for three grant programs that aim to ensure all people and communities have the skills, technology, and capacity needed to reap the full benefits of the digital economy.
Digital Equity Asset Mapping
In addition to identifying digital equity needs, Massachusetts’ Statewide Digital Equity Plan must develop an inventory of existing digital equity assets. To do this in Berkshire County, BRPC will reach out to community-based organizations to ask for their help completing an Asset Mapping Inventory to catalog providers of digital equity-related services (i.e., digital literacy or technology classes, access to free internet or Wi-Fi, device distribution, ACP enrollment, etc.). BRPC will offer training on the Asset Mapping Inventory Tool with the goal of completing documentation by August 2023.
Digital Equity Partnership Services
In parallel with Municipal Digital Equity Planning, BRPC is also serving as the Berkshire County liaison for MBI’s Digital Equity Partnerships Program. The Digital Equity Partnerships Program will implement digital equity projects that meet the goals outlined in the Commonwealth’s ARPA COVID recovery legislation (codified as Chapter 102 of the Acts of 2021) that created a $50 million fund to bridge the digital divide. Partners such as The Alliance for Digital Equity and Baystate Health work with local and regional organizations (BRPC) to implement projects in six program areas:
• Wi-Fi Access Initiative
• Public Space Internet Modernization Initiative
• Connectivity Initiative for Economic Hardship
• Digital Literacy Initiative
• Device Distribution and Refurbishment Program
• Education, Outreach, and Adoption
In Berkshire County, BRPC will convene stakeholders who will help prioritize community needs around connectivity, digital literacy, device distribution, and refurbishment, and work to increase outreach and enrollment of residents in the Affordable Connectivity Program.