MA broadband chief: Infrastructure and equity go hand in hand

2024 will likely be another critical year for broadband access, as states are eager to get the ball rolling on the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

In Massachusetts’ case, it’s looking at the bigger picture, not just network rollouts.

“We look at broadband deployment as more than just infrastructure,” said Michael Baldino, director and general counsel of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI). “Having infrastructure in place is necessary but not sufficient. It doesn’t solve the entire problem.”

Although Massachusetts already has around 99% broadband coverage (based on statistics from the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map), there’s still an adoption gap.

“There are people who have access and don’t subscribe to the service,” Baldino said. “That’s due to things like affordability…they struggle to afford the service. It is a matter of, they don’t have internet connected devices. They may lack digital literacy skills.”

So, Massachusetts is trying to look at broadband “holistically,” infrastructure as well as “all the other elements that are needed” to make sure people “can really take advantage of the access to the service.”

On the funding front, MBI in November launched the Gap Networks Grant Program, a new $145 million grant program funded by the Capital Projects Fund (CPF). Baldino said according to FCC data, Massachusetts has approximately 15,000 unserved and underserved locations remaining. This program intends to fill that “gap,” so to speak.

The Gap Networks program is the first CPF-funded grant program the state has stood up, Baldino added, and the first program that will “deploy federal broadband infrastructure funds” in Massachusetts. Previously, the state had various initiatives supported by state bond funds, mainly designed to cover the last mile.

MBI expects to announce initial awards for the Gap Networks program within the next few months. It aims to cover as many unserved locations as possible through two rounds of Gap Networks funding, then “pick up [any locations remaining] through BEAD.”

Like every other state, Massachusetts submitted its BEAD initial proposal by December 27. It’s waiting for the NTIA to approve the proposal, which is comprised of two separate volumes. States that receive approval for volumes one and two of the initial proposal can request access to at least 20% of their BEAD allocation. Thus far, Louisiana’s the only state to reach that step.

“We set ourselves up to be prepared for the BEAD initial proposal and the statewide digital equity plan through work that we’ve been doing over the past year,” Baldino went on to say. Work included a statewide regional listening tour as well as a statewide survey that “addressed various aspects of digital equity, broadband access and affordability.”

“We had over 7,800 responses to that survey that were completed in time to be factored into our BEAD initial proposal and statewide digital equity plan,” he said.

Baldino also emphasized the importance towns and municipalities play in implementing digital equity. MBI to-date has announced 62 participants in its Municipal Digital Equity Planning program, which enables municipalities to “engage in planning activities related to digital equity and bridging the digital divide.”

“We’ve got some of the smallest communities in the state, all the way up to the city of Boston,” said Baldino. “This [program] is empowering them to help meet the needs of their residents and to have really customized plans. They know what’s needed in their specific communities.”

MBI hopes it can get its BEAD challenge process started in a few months’ time, as “that is the other big piece.”

“That’s an opportunity for people to come forward if they feel there are quality of service issues that are impacting their service,” Baldino added.