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Your town may have high-speed internet. But does everyone in your community have access?

Becket Internet servers tour

Officials in 2021 visit the town of Becket's new high-speed internet service facility. They included state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli; Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of housing and economic development; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Gov. Charlie Baker. Showing them the gear is Jamie Cincotta, utility foreman of Whip City Fiber. 

PITTSFIELD — For the last decade in Western Massachusetts, closing the digital divide meant getting fiber, cable or wireless service to every address.

Today, the frontier isn’t geographic.

With nearly all “last mile” connections complete, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has shifted, in its final months, to efforts to help Massachusetts households overcome other obstacles to access.

Locally, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is helping cities and towns get on a path to new reservoirs of financial and technical help. More than half a dozen Berkshires communities expressed initial interest by attending a presentation through the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

“We think Berkshire County towns showing interest early sets us up well for the next phases of state or federal funding, in areas where we might be overlooked,” said Wylie Goodman, the commission’s senior economic development planner.

Last week, Baker and other top state officials came to the region to celebrate the six-year last mile broadband project. Speakers at the event, held in Ashfield, looked forward as well as back.

Governor Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Polito in Ashfield

Gov. Charlie Baker, left, attended an event last week marking the near completion of his administration's last mile high-speed internet project. Joining him was Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of community development in the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

Michael Kennealy, secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said a new Digital Equity Planning Program within the Massachusetts Broadband Institute will help cities and towns contend with how gaps in actual internet access affect people in their communities.

The new program will coach municipalities on how to tap into significant pots of money.

“These are important parts of the next iteration of the strategy, which is about $350 million in state and federal funding,” Kennealy said in Ashfield.

In Berkshire County, Goodman is reaching out to every community, encouraging them to apply to join with the MBI to plan for digital equity.

The point? Finding ways to extend broadband access to people who remain on the sidelines — people who remain disadvantaged by not taking part in today’s dominant communications tool.

The barrier could be cost, digital literacy and basic tech skills, language or not having the right devices.

“We still have gaps, and they’re not only out here, they’re all across the state,” Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of housing and economic development, told the Ashfield gathering. “We’re doing a ton of work as we think through how we’re going to spend this $350 million. We’re doing the planning, we’re doing the applications, we’re doing the strategy.”

The MBI says strategies individual towns set will guide the state’s overall digital equity plan – and influence how federal infrastructure money is spent.

Kennealy, the housing and economic development secretary, said last week the Digital Equity Planning Program will set the table for those future investments.

Helping people most affected by the pandemic remains a top goal, the state says.

Opting in

For the last mile project that’s wrapping up, the state allocated $57 million to help residents in 53 unserved towns. Now, the wider digital equity effort opens that playing field to every community in Massachusetts.

For that reason, Goodman is urging Berkshires municipal leaders to opt in now. The planning process with MBI is free.

There’s no entry fee, but the potential reward is significant. Baker and Kennealy said the state will be managing about $350 million in funding to make high-speed internet available to all.

While there isn’t yet a deadline to apply, Goodman said communities will compete for funding.

“Our goal is to ensure when state and federal funds come into Massachusetts to fund high-speed broadband, that people are excited and prepared and able to use the technology to its full extent,” she said Wednesday.

“We would hope that at least a quarter (of Berkshires communities), if not more, would participate,” Goodman said.

Local officials have two options in joining the planning effort. One, a “Digital Equity Charrette,” runs one to three months and focuses on putting community members and leaders together with experts to pinpoint how more people can secure high-speed internet.

The second, a “Digital Equity Plan,” calls for six- to eight-month deeper dive into a community’s needs that will detail needed steps.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Managing editor for innovation

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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