SPRINGFIELD — The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission is undertaking the creation of a plan that addresses the city’s need for digital equity, a plan which City Council President Michael Fenton explained is necessary for the city to apply for state and federal resources.

Fenton spoke to Reminder Publishing about the results from the City Council’s Working Group on Digital Equity & Internet Access established by former City Council President Jesse Lederman last year. Fenton chaired the group which included Baystate Health Vice President of Public Health Dr. Frank Robinson, Springfield Public Library Assistant Director for Public Services Jean Canosa Albano, Charlie Knight, Roberta Walker Kilkenny, Archbishop Timothy Paul, Alex Martin, Justin Ayala, Christian Polanco, William Brock, Darryl Williams and Giselle Gaines.

Fenton added municipal broadband services may or may not be part of the final plan.

In its interim report, the PVPC explained, “The ‘Digital Divide’ is the gap between those who have affordable access, skills and support to effectively engage online and those who do not. Digital equity is a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy.”

The final plan, Fenton added, is to define the problems the city is facing on this issue and determining solutions.

Last year, the PVPC worked with the city officials to secure $120,000 in funds from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute for Municipal Digital Equity Planning.

In its interim report, the PVPC noted across all three income ranges shown ($75,000-plus, $20,000 to $75,000 and under $20,000), “a growing share of homes had a broadband subscription by 2022, with the lowest income earners making the largest strides, gaining broadband access to nearly 20 percent more homes in 2022 than in 2018.”

The areas of the city with broadband vary. “The share of homes lacking an internet subscription ranges from 5% in one of the East Forest Park census tracts (8025) to 47% — nearly half — in one of the Metro Center census tracts (8009),” according to the report.

Also, according to the report, the areas of the city with the lowest incomes are the most likely not to have any computing device other than a smartphone.

Robinson explained the interim report is a “first step” in describing and address the digital need. “There are no surprises in the report but it is not sufficient in truly understanding the problem,” he said.

He explained using census information means it’s “not necessarily current” and the next report by the PVPC will be on the “hyper local level.” Robinson used an example that broadband access may go to an apartment building but that doesn’t mean that all the tenants in that building actually use the service. There will be “much more personal conversations with residents, stakeholders and businesses” in framing the final report.

Robinson noted that along the Interstate 91 corridor there are more than 40 communities with “cable monopolies” for digital access. The city could consider it, as other neighboring communities have instituted a municipal broadband service.

According to the interim report, “Available data indicate that there is a striking lack of competition at the provider level in the city of Springfield. At the city level, less than 25 percent of customers have access to more than one provider. Comcast/Xfinity has 100% coverage citywide, while Charter Communications (which services neighboring East Longmeadow and Wilbraham) covers 2.4% of users and Chicopee Electric Light (doing business as Crossroads Fiber) covers a very small number of users. T-Mobile also provides ‘fixed wireless’ to nearly a quarter of users.”

Robinson noted the city already has a fiber optic network that connects municipal buildings, such as schools and that the schools have the ability to broadcast a broadband signal that could be used by neighboring residents. This could be part of a “hybrid plan” for the city. Robinson, however, added the “challenge is bigger than connectivity.”

He explained the final plan will address affordability, access to equipment and digital skills training so city residents can make the most of broadband service.

Albano said she has seen the effect of people not having broadband in their home. As the assistant director for public services at the Springfield Public Library, she knows how many people use the free internet service the library offers the public.

She explained that digital equity isn’t just about access for broadband, it is also about training for people on how to use the internet. The issue is also one of economic development, she added.

She said there is “frustration with the lack of options with internet service providers; there is great desire to have more options.”

Albano said the final plan will “incorporate what people are saying.”

According to a statement from the working group, the work on the final report will continue through 2024.

+ posts