SPRINGFIELD — The internet is embedded in the day-to-day lives of Americans, from working from home to ordering food or filing taxes. While reliable access to high-speed internet is an assumption for many, there are people in communities around the state that do not have the physical infrastructure to support that connection.

A new $22 million program from Massachusetts Broadband Institute, a division of the MassTech Collaborative, is seeking to bridge that gap by coordinating between affordable housing operators and internet service providers. The institute operates several initiatives that encourage universal access to affordable internet. Massachusetts Broadband Institute Director and General Counsel Michael Baldino said the internet should be considered a standard, necessary utility, the same as electricity, heat and telephone.

State Economic Development Secretary Yvonne Hao praised the program in a press release. “Our economic future depends on high-quality internet access for all, especially for low-income populations who have been historically overlooked and disproportionately impacted by the digital divide,” she said. “The [Residential] Retrofit Program takes an equitable approach to addressing the root causes of low-quality internet service in public and affordable housing. This program makes direct investments that will lead to enhanced connectivity for residents, helping them engage fully in 21st century activities.”

According to Baldino, there are 160,000 affordable housing units in the state, three-quarters of which were built more than 50 years ago, before the internet became a ubiquitous and integrated part of everyday life. There is also housing erected in the past two decades that was not built with the capacity for high-speed internet connections. The Residential Retrofit Program was created to add internet capability to up to 22,000 units in affordable 500 housing developments, allowing residents to access the same functionality and opportunities as others with high-speed internet access.

The first step of the program, currently underway, is seeking out interested housing operators. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has hosted a couple of webinars on the program, and another will be taking place on April 23 from 9:30-11:30 a.m. Interested parties can register at broadband.masstech.org/node/17936.

Housing operators must submit expressions of interest, which will be evaluated by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. A list of eligible properties will be put out in a request for proposals from ISPs, who must respond by May. The institute will evaluate the proposals against program criteria and facilitate an agreement between the housing operators and the ISPs that bid on them.

The grant funding will cover the cost of running fiber connections to the housing units, creating the ability for an ISP to provide their service. Baldino said the connections will make the units more attractive to prospective tenants and provide more potential customers for the ISP, making it a win-win opportunity. He said the ones who will benefit most, however, are the residents.

“It’s a generational investment,” he said, explaining that lacking consistent access to the internet eliminates job opportunities and makes modern device-dependent education significantly harder.
The program is open to housing operators in all areas of the state. “This is statewide. You’re going to see it in cities. You’re going to see it in rural areas,” Baldino said.

MassTech Collaborative Public Relations Manager Jake Stern said, “There’s opportunities here to complement that digital equity initiative” begun in Springfield. He was referring to work being completed by the Working Group on Digital Equity and Internet Access, a special subcommittee of the City Council created in early 2023. The working group’s chair, City Councilor Jose Delgado, said they will be releasing a report this summer identifying factors that add to the digital divide in the city, including affordability and accessibility.

“We’re working to secure any and all grants” to mitigate those factors, Delgado said. “The council believes this is important to the future of the city and its residents.”

For more information about the Residential Retrofit Program, visit broadband.masstech.org/retrofit.

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