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When we think of glaring inequalities, digital justice may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, in an increasingly digitalized world, it requires greater attention.

You may have read in recent headlines that the American Connectivity Program is ending. Since December 2021, the nationwide initiative provided internet grants to low-income families and individuals. Despite strong bipartisan support, the grants began running out this spring due to a lack of funding.

From school and work to healthcare and our social environment, new technologies are constantly changing many areas of our lives – sometimes faster than we can keep up.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital equity as a state in which “all individuals and communities have the information technology capabilities necessary to fully participate in our society, democracy, and economy.” Digital divides can form along age, income, and ethnic lines. Veterans, people with disabilities, and seniors are among those who tend to be disproportionately affected.

Adding to this is the rural-urban divide. A 2022 estimate by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) found that there are about 240,000 households in the state that do not have a landline connection to 100/20 broadband service. About 224,000 of these live in rural areas.

Over the years, millions of dollars have been invested in expanding broadband infrastructure—in Minnesota alone. In addition to DEED’s Border-to-Border Broadband Program, a lot of work has been done behind the scenes to provide unserved and underserved households with access to reliable and affordable internet.

This was particularly difficult in hard-to-reach areas like the rural areas of the Arrowhead and Iron Range. Many of these places are ineligible for grants because they have internet on paper. Regional committees were formed to conduct feasibility studies and connectivity tests with consultants like GEO Partners and NEO Connect. The data revealed gaps in connectivity, and these insights helped hard-to-reach households qualify for grants to get faster, more reliable service.

Another grassroots initiative was formed in response to the Office of Broadband Development’s March 2023 call for local areas to form digital connectivity committees. Last year, the committees collected data and provided input for a statewide Digital Opportunity Plan. On March 28, DEED announced federal approval of the plan, which is now eligible for federal grants. The plan will guide further efforts to close gaps in access, device ownership and digital skills.

We have made great progress since the Northeastern Minnesota Regional Broadband Summit in September 2021, but service remains inconsistent in many areas, impacting our ability to compete nationally and globally.

Let’s continue to make progress by collaborating on connectivity projects and advocating for greater digital equity. Together, we can improve infrastructure to meet the needs of our communities so more of us can fully participate in the digital economy.

Amber Lewis is a consultant for Northspan (

northspan.org

), a nonprofit consulting firm based in Duluth, and program manager for its Welcoming Community program.

Amber Lewis.jpg

Amber Lewis

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