Closing Minnesota’s Digital Divide

Closing Minnesota’s Digital Divide

The pandemic revealed deep disparities in access to computers and broadband, which must be addressed in a digital-first society.

If you think about your relationship to computing devices and the internet during the past two years, it’s likely that you can think of at least a dozen ways you relied on digital access.

Here are a few ways we’ve stayed connected while isolated at home: remote schooling and work, telemedicine, grocery shopping, meal delivery, attending religious services, banking and bill paying, and using videoconferencing to stay connected with family members. 

Middle-class and wealthier Minnesotans engaged in at least some, if not all, of these activities on virtually any given day. Most likely, they could access the internet using their choice of several different devices, such as phones, tablets, and laptops, or use all three device types at once.

But if you’re financially strapped, lost your job during the pandemic, don’t own a home computer, or live in an area without broadband access, these vital services and connections are out of reach. 

In fact, a study early in the pandemic by Common Sense Media and Kids Action showed that more than 150,000 Minnesota students lacked the devices needed to connect to remote schooling, and another 250,000 lacked access to the internet. Communities of color, rural families, and students in tribal nations are disproportionately affected because of higher poverty rates in these Minnesota populations.

The digital divide can be documented far beyond the rural parts of Minnesota. It includes many urban and suburban families, children, and adults who are not connected, nor do they have the devices to do so. 

Across Minnesota, nonprofits, businesses, government, and internet service providers are working on remedies that can empower all Minnesotans to benefit—economically, educationally, socially—from affordable, reliable access.

The pandemic showed us that we can’t assume everyone has internet access; doing so leaves students and families behind—or even further behind. The Minneapolis-based Northside Achievement Zone released a report on Covid’s impact on the students the organization serves. “Despite major efforts by school districts and communities to provide essential technology to students and families for distance learning,” the report said, “the digital divide persists with stark inequities in access to high-quality online education, including high-speed internet and internet-capable devices, as well as training and support for students, parents, and teachers.”

ConnectedMN is an alliance of philanthropic, business, and government organizations that distributes grant money to nonprofits to support access to devices, connectivity, and computer training in specific regions and among targeted communities.

Alliance members raise money and look for opportunities to distribute it across digital initiatives and purposefully reach into communities of color where access is typically spotty or lacking. Two grant rounds have supported organizations as diverse as Boys and Girls Clubs, Neighborhood House, Project for Pride in Living, the Hallie Q. Brown Center, and South Sudanese Foundation. All are engaged in projects such as creating appropriate spacing for computer lab users, providing access to distance learning, repairing and replacing old student laptops, and offering access to tutoring.

Standalone nonprofits, including PCs for People and Tech Dump, profiled in this issue as winners of TCB Community Impact Awards, get computers into the hands of people who need them and ensure that recipients have the connectivity and training to use them. In 2021, PCs for People provided 55,000 computers to low-income Minnesotans and helped 18,000 people with internet connectivity. 

Philanthropies such as the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids have worked for years on broadband access for Minnesotans. Blandin’s early advocacy and sustained efforts began back in 2003. Its overarching goal: “Everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to survive and thrive in our communities and across the globe.”

The Blandin on Broadband blog on the foundation’s website incorporates important updates on the availability of federal funds to support access projects in rural counties, such as the new federal ReConnect program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That program aims to distribute grants and loans for eligible rural communities that want to provide broadband service to local residents. 

Long-term efforts like Blandin’s, collaboratives like ConnectedMN, nonprofits like PCs for People, and government investments such as the federal infrastructure act are all helping to accelerate change for low-income, rural, and tribal communities that have long needed such help. 

Let’s hope it’s not too little, too late for the students, families, small businesses, and rural residents who stand to lose as society moves toward digital-first services and the expectation that everyone is connected. We’ve learned these past two years that many people are decidedly not connected. Together, let’s ensure the digital divide is closed in Minnesota. We can do this.

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