WESTHAMPTON — The Federal Communications Commission wants everyone connected to the internet, so on May 18 the Westhampton Public Library will host a discussion on whether everyone in town has equal access.

The discussion of digital equity could bring significant monies to the town to expand the broadband network.

“There is funding in the pipeline, right now,” said Jennifer Nelson, urban planner for VHB, the town’s consultant for the effort. “There’s a program called the Gap Network Program … That funding is specifically designed to address situations like toll roads where … residents have no access.”

Nelson said that some public ways, like Nob Hill Road, are difficult spots for broadband systems to reach and serve. Digital cable for broadband service might cost $36,000 to wire up a home there, where few people live on the road, and they often have a long driveway. Providers like Comcast and Spectrum refuse to foot the bill to extend infrastructure for just a few subscriber accounts.

The effort to wire up every residence seems to unofficially acknowledge that internet services through satellite providers are not sufficiently reliable. Heavy snowfall and electrical storms interrupt connections that may be critically important at that moment. But the FCC’s emphasis is not limited to network upgrades, the most expensive option for increasing local connectivity.

An informational release by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute clarifies that internet availability and affordability are two of several reasons residents fall on the wrong side of the digital divide and lack access. The lack of a suitable device, fast enough to run streaming video and contemporary software, can be a stumbling block. With a connection established, online search skills become necessary for residents to better navigate the cloud, the vast catalogues of knowledge available.

“We are assessing infrastructure,” Nelson said. “We are assessing skills training available at community anchor institutions like the library, and also devices available at those institutions.”

Nelson emphasized that internet connectivity, digital equity, is extremely important in many aspects of life, including telehealth services. A doctor’s consultation, delivered through a computer, is becoming more common as the population ages. Moneymaking opportunities on the internet, and hybrid employment, working in the office and at home, appeal to residents hoping to avoid long commutes. Dating is only one online social opportunity. Personal interests, gaming, volunteerism, addiction treatment and religious services can all be accessed through the internet.

The May 18 meeting may help town officials secure federal grant money now that a system was set up to report inaccuracies in federal information. In the past, municipalities had no way to dispute federal claims about the town’s digital reach. The problem? If federal officials think the town has everyone connected funds won’t be available for local upgrades and supports.

“It’s really important that people are aware of the ‘being challenged’ process,” Nelson said. “If you don’t have access, but on the [federal] map it shows that you do have access, you should get in contact with your town administrator.”

Community engagement is crucial, Nelson said, for the Municipal Digital Equity Planning Process to work. Residents need to communicate their connectivity problems to the officials who can submit challenges of federal information. An encouraging fact is that 100% of the Westhampton population qualifies for the program because the town is rural.

Nelson said state and federal officials have a list of eight factors, among residents, that qualify a municipality for the program. While 97% of the town is currently connected, senior citizens, veterans of military service and those with language barriers are still hampered when surfing the Web. The municipal digital planning process works to identify those residents and the federal and state programs that will enhance their online experience.

“COVID-19 was a real trigger for a lot of these studies on the pandemic,” Nelson said. “Once everything shifted to remote learning it really highlighted the inequities between the people who have access to high speed internet, reliable internet, and digital devices, and those who do not have access to those tools or the skills and knowledge to use them.”

The meeting of consultants, town officials and residents, staged as part of the Municipal Digital Equity Planning Process, is scheduled for May 18 at the Westhampton Public Library. The meeting will begin at 11 a.m.

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