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SHUTESBURY — For Jody Jones, this is a special moment for internet connectivity in the Bay State. According to the senior planner at the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, or MBI, a tidal wave of money totaling $400 million is flowing out to towns and cities from both federal and state government sources.

“This is really a very unique and special moment for broadband and internet for Massachusetts,” Jones said. “It’s similar to the electrification effort back in the 1930s.”

One new program fielded by MBI, the Municipal Equity Planning Program, has been tapped by 78 communities hoping to maximize the availability of internet for their residents. Westhampton, Leverett and Shutesbury are among the towns taking advantage of the program tailor-made to get every household online.

Leverett and Shutesbury are jointly developing a survey to gather information on the three major focal points of the new program. Town officials hope to learn whether the fiber optic network the town built over half a decade ago is running well and available for all residents. Do they have equipment suitable for gigabyte data speeds? Do they know how to surf the internet?

“When we think about digital equity we think about three buckets of work,” Jones said. Does the community have internet? Is it affordable? Lastly, does the network have quality of service? Does it maintain a reliable connection? “That’s a framework that Mass. Broadband uses to think about digital equity.”

The program connects each municipality with a consultant skilled in network maximization. Town officials research local demographics. What organizations would be valuable partners for digital equity? What gaps and what needs exist in the community? The answers to those questions become the framework for a community plan for digital equity among all residents.

Shutesbury partnered with the Franklin Council of Regional Governments. FRCOG was one of 12 consultants approved as a partner for towns doing equity planning. Huntress felt FRCOG was more attuned to the needs of a rural, forested township with very uneven terrain.

Adjacent towns, like Leverett and Shutesbury, often develop regional networks. The two Franklin County municipalities will not combine networks. Though resources are being shared for data gathering, according to Gayle Huntress, manager of Shutesbury’s fiber optic network, the two towns will each go through their own planning processes.

“We need to find out where the needs are, with this study, so we can figure out how to meet them,” Huntress said. “There is state money available to help us fund those things, but first we have to find out what they are.”

Jones grew excited when discussing a new program for implementation. Every town that goes through the digital equity planning process will be eligible for a one time grant of up to $100,000 through the Municipal Digital Equity Implementation program. An implementation grant will allow towns to execute a system upgrade, or several smaller projects, identified during the equity planning process.

The planning process won’t bring changes in service for the average consumer, Jones said. Shutesbury and Leverett have very high rates of subscription. The goal is 100% participation so that every resident can accomplish online work.

“Every Massachusetts resident needs the internet to function and thrive in their everyday life, whether that’s looking for a job, going to the doctor or educational opportunities,” Jones said. “Training opportunities for careers, a lot of them are done online, so it’s essential that everyone have access to the internet.”

Huntress emphasized that Leverett and Shutesbury have established networks and are way ahead of most municipalities. Most towns, rural and urban, do not have a broadband network. But setting up a network is only the first step, according to Huntress. The second step of broadband deployment is making sure the ability to connect reaches everyone. That constitutes digital equity.

The digital equity planning process in Shutesbury and Leverett will be completed some time this year. The implementation stage, possibly funded by a six figure grant, will occur later in the year or early in 2025.

dpruyne@thereminder.com | + posts