PITTSFIELD – Mayor Linda Tyer will ask the new city council at its first meeting on Tuesday to accept a grant of nearly $ 100,000 from the state’s Community Compact computer program.
What the city will gain in return: a free, publicly accessible Wi-Fi network that will cover the city center and the Morningside and West Side areas.
“At a time when a large part of our life – from work to school – requires internet access, it’s more than a desire,” Tyer said during a grant ceremony at the hotel in town at the end of last month. “It is essentially a public service that we need to provide a prosperous quality of life for every resident, regardless of their economic status. “
What is the plan?
The project is the brainchild of Mike Steben, chief information officer for Pittsfield. Steben said the city plans to use the grant money to install a series of Wi-Fi hotspots in the city center and surrounding neighborhoods to create a wireless network accessible to any resident, business or tourist of the region.
The limits of the network are still forming. Steben said that – ironically – every wireless network needs “a wired network that works behind the scenes.” He said the location of the hotspots will depend on where the city has the ability to tap into a wired internet infrastructure or create that wired connection.
The Wi-Fi network will not require residents to be in a municipal building or the Berkshire Athenaeum, like existing networks. Instead, Steben said this network “would be more detached from the physical location of our buildings – a bit more strategically placed if you will.”
Mayor Tyer, speaking at the granting ceremony on December 21, said the ultimate goal is to make “backend improvements that improve customer relationships and management systems for our local organizations” and to create an “opportunity for the public to have live access to events.”
When the coronavirus pandemic began, many of the daily school, shopping and municipal chores that went face-to-face moved online. For city leaders, this transition made it clear how many residents were living in “the digital divide” without access to reliable or affordable internet service.
“They did not have access to school and they did not have access to an unemployment insurance claim and they did not have access to the books on tape in the library and all the other things,” said Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said. “They didn’t have access because the access is not just that the fiber goes through the city, it has to be affordable.
Who is in the digital divide?
The digital divide is “the gap between Americans who have access to telecommunications and information technology and those who do not”, according to a march report by the Congressional Research Service.
The main factor behind the gap is high speed internet access which is always on. Wi-Fi is one way to access broadband.
Perhaps the best picture we have of the digital divide in Pittsfield comes from a recent map created by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on “indicators of broadband needs”. The map combines census data and Federal Communications Commission data to visualize who has broadband access and who does not.
In Pittsfield, the census tract covering the city center is the only part of the city that does not provide satisfactory level access. In this region – home to 1,909 households – around 28% of households do not have Internet access and around 24% do not have a computer, smartphone or tablet.
When can I log in?
This answer remains a little more illusory. Steben said city officials are in the early stages of drafting a request for proposals for the project and are waiting for the grant money to be accepted by city council.
He said that once an RFP is issued, the city should be able to select a contractor within 30 days. But after that, the timeline becomes more blurry.
Building the wireless network will take a lot of effort. Steben said much of his department’s work is being held back by historic supply chain shortages, to the point where he’s struggling to find laptops for city workers.
“I’ve been doing this for a very long time and I pride myself on my ability to do precise calculations and, and I can’t at the moment,” he said.
“In a year, I want to be done with this,” added Steben. “But I don’t know what challenges are going to arise because of the supply chain.”
Under the terms of the grant, Pittsfield has until February 15, 2023 to spend the $ 99,750 on the project. After this date, the money reverts to the state.
The new Pittsfield school committee will hold its first meeting on Wednesday evening. The committee will meet at 6 p.m. in the town council chamber at the town hall.
New committee members will have some time to gain a foothold with the election of a new committee chair, vice chair, and seat allocation. Next, it’s fair to review the fiscal year 2023 budget calendar and discuss a proposed settlement between the school district and the teachers’ union, United Educators of Pittsfield.