What a Digitally Equitable Minnesota Could Look Like—And How to Get There
Wednesday, August 30, 2023
What a Digitally Equitable Minnesota Could Look Like—And How to Get There
In its recently released Draft Digital Opportunity Plan, the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development (OBD) envisions a future where digital equity connects all Minnesota residents to opportunities, options, and each other. The three goals highlighted in the plan—connect people to people, connect people to information, and connect people to resources—are ultimately limited, nodding to the moments where connections happen rather than the real systemic work it takes to sustain connections. To do so, OBD says, it will take people working together across the state with this shared vision. This plan presents an informational starting point.
Progress toward digital opportunity in Minnesota has for so long depended on two groups:
- digitally resilient Minnesotans, that is, the people who live the digital divide every day, and
- advocates and educators, the people who share a vision where digital equity connects all Minnesotans to opportunities, options, and each other.
Digital Connection Committees (DCCs) are the heart of Minnesota’s digital opportunity planning process. Devised by OBD specifically for digital opportunity planning, DCCs are self-selected workgroups formed on a voluntary basis by a variety of entities, including political subdivisions, tribes, non-profits, anchor institutions, faith-based organizations, Minnesota-based businesses, and more–or any combination of these. DCCs gathered digital inclusion data and and submitted the data to OBD. OBD provided targeted financial support for DCCs primarily through Assessing Digital Inclusion Mini-Grants of up to $4,000. With inclusion in mind, OBD chose to make these grants non-competitive, awarding funds based on each individual application’s completeness, timeliness, and adherence to the scope of the intended grant work.
OBD aims to continue prioritizing authenticity, cooperation, and relationship-building while implementing this plan.
The Digital Divide in Minnesota
As of October 2022, 92.07 percent of Minnesota housing units statewide are served by wireline broadband service at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. The nearly 8 percent of households lacking access are located largely in the hardest-to-reach places.
Out of Minnesota’s 5.8 million residents, 55.1% live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, encompassing Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, and Washington Counties. Although this geographic area—commonly referred to as the Metro—is home to a larger number of Minnesotans, it represents only 3.5% of the state’s land area. The rest of Minnesota’s residents—44.9%, or nearly 2,605,000—live in the 96.5% of Minnesota’s geography located outside of the Metro ("Greater Minnesota"). This includes 80 counties and 10 Native Nations.
In February 2015, as early rounds of the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program reached across Minnesota, 68.08% of rural Minnesota housing units had access to wireline speeds at or above 25/3 Mbps, and 1/1 Gbps service reached only 5.81%.68 As of October 2022, those figures have risen to 74.42% and 36.04%, respectively. When looking beyond wireline service this 2022 figure rises to 94.31% of rural housing units being served at or above 25/3 Mbps.
In the Metro counties, 91.5% of households have broadband subscriptions compared to 66.8% of households in Greater Minnesota. Over 12% of Greater Minnesota households versus 8.6% of Metro households have access to only a mobile data plan with no broadband subscription. Greater Minnesota residents are also more likely to depend on satellite internet service (8.5% versus 5% in the Metro). As of July 10, 2023, Minnesota’s largely urban 3rd, 4th, and 5th Congressional districts had Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) enrollment rates of 23%–34% among eligible households. At the same time, Minnesota’s rural 1st, 7th, and 8th districts had ACP enrollment rates of 18%–25%.
Adults Ages 60 and Over
About 24% of Minnesotans—1,348,000 people—are ages 60 and over. Broadband subscriptions are increasing among older adults. In 2021, 79.6% of Minnesota adults ages 60 and older had a home broadband subscription compared to 66.8% in 2015. Computer ownership is also rising among older adults. In 2021, 77.4% of Minnesota adults ages 60 and older had a laptop or desktop computer compared to 56.2% in 2015.
People from Minoritized Racial and Ethnic Groups
Minnesota’s residents include 1,279,000 people from minoritized racial and ethnic groups, representing 22.4% of the state’s overall population. Although the number of people from minoritized racial groups is higher in the Metro at 939,000, the population of minoritized racial groups in Greater Minnesota is increasing at a much faster rate. From 2000 to 2022, the number of people from minoritized racial groups in the Metro increased by 111%; during this same time frame, the number of people from minoritized racial groups in Greater Minnesota increased by 147%.
Broadband subscriptions are less frequent among most people from minoritized racial and ethnic groups. Rates are 85.4% for Asian Minnesotans, 75.3% for Black Minnesotans, 77.4% for Hispanic or Latino Minnesotans, 70.9% for Indigenous Minnesotans, 85.1% for multi-racial or multi-ethnic Minnesotans, and 68.6% for Minnesotans of an unspecified minoritized race.
People from minoritized racial and ethnic groups are more often limited to mobile data only with no home broadband subscription. 9.7% of White Minnesotans have access to only mobile data. This figure is higher for Minnesotans who are Black (22.3%), Hispanic or Latino (19.4%), Indigenous (22%), and Minnesotans of an unspecified minoritized race (27.1%).
People from minoritized racial and ethnic groups are more likely to lose internet service for days at a time. And rates of laptop and desktop computer ownership are lower for most people from minoritized racial and ethnic groups.
People from minoritized racial and ethnic groups living in Minnesota are more likely to experience poverty.
Minnesota has 265,920 veterans, representing 6.1% of the civilian population ages 18 and over. The vast majority of Minnesota’s veterans are male with just 7.4% being female. Additionally, veterans’ ages skew older than the state’s average with 56.9% of all veterans being ages 65 and older. For comparison, 19.6% of the state’s non-veteran population is 65 and older.
In Minnesota, 81.5% of veteran households subscribe to broadband service compared to 83.6% of non-veteran households. While 87.3% of non-veteran Minnesota households had a smartphone, this figure drops to 72.1% among veteran households. Likewise, Minnesota veteran households have a home laptop or desktop at a rate of 81% compared to 86.5% of non-veteran households.
People with Disabilities
Approximately 649,000 Minnesotan, or 11.5%, live with at least one disability. Broadband subscriptions are increasing among people with disabilities. People with disabilities are less likely to have a broadband subscription. In Minnesota, 79% of people with disabilities have access to a home broadband subscription compared to 83.7% of all Minnesota households.
People Who are Incarcerated or Re-Entering Society
People who are incarcerated must essentially put their technology skills on hold during their detainment. A person serving a 15-year sentence, if released today, may have never meaningfully used any of today’s most common technologies, such as smartphones, tablets, and mobile data. They may never have browsed YouTube, navigated social media, or completed online applications and paperwork. Technology evolves quickly. Cybersecurity threats can change from unimaginable to personal in an instant. Missing out for any length of time puts a person at an immediate disadvantage, which can be especially harmful when that person is trying to restart their life. Within the scope of this plan, and given Minnesota’s large probation population, the short-term path forward must address digital opportunity proximal to the re-entry process, referring to the transition from prison to society.
As of January 1, 2023, 8,152 adults were being held in Minnesota’s 11 state correctional facilities. Fewer re-entering individuals have access to home internet compared with the general population. In a survey of re-entering individuals conducted by Repowered, 65.3% of respondents stated they had internet access at their residence. Moreover, people living in transitional housing reported frequent issues with time limits, restrictions around internet use, and slow speeds during times where more residents are online. Re-entering individuals are less likely to have access to an internet-enabled device. Smartphones were the most common device with 62.5% of Repowered survey respondents indicating they had access to one. Laptop computers were a distant second at 42.2%.
People Experiencing Language Barriers
Twelve percent of Minnesotans ages 5 and over speak a language other than English at home—62.4% of which can speak English “very well,” and 37.6% speak English “less than very well.” Statewide, this equates to 239,624 Minnesotans ages 5 and over, or 4.5% of Minnesotans ages 5 and over, speaking English “less than very well.” Among people who speak English less than very well, 23.8% are 5-17 years old, 40.1% are 18-64 years old, and 53.5% are ages 65 and over. Statewide, the most common languages spoken at home other than English are Spanish (which is spoken in 31.5% of the households that speak other languages), Somali (11.7%), and Hmong (10.9%). While linguistic diversity is more numerous in the Metro, a density of linguistic diversity accumulates in some Greater Minnesota cities.
Minnesota’s most linguistically diverse communities are often located in areas with broadband access. The majority of people whose primary home language is something other than English live in cities that are served by broadband at speeds of 25/3 or greater. But people with limited English fluency and/or limited English literacy have a broadband subscription at levels lower than average. Language barriers correlate with low levels of formal education. In November 2021, 66.5% of people without high school diplomas and 71.3% of people completing high school had a broadband subscription access.196 This compares to 85.6% of college graduates. Households primarily speaking a language other than English are more likely to be digitally connected if K12 students reside there. People with limited English fluency and/or limited English literacy are also less likely to have a computer at home.
People in Low-Income Households
Statewide, 15.6% of all Minnesotans (about 904,800 people) are below 150% of the poverty level. People in low-income households are less likely to subscribe to broadband. Minnesota households below 150% poverty saw broadband subscription rates of 75.4%. People in low-income households are more likely to own only a smartphone: 19.2% of people in households under 150% poverty had access to only a smartphone. In households between 150% to 200% poverty, this figure dropped to 10%. Households above 200% poverty had access to only a smartphone at a rate of 5.5%.
Goals, Objectives and Strategies of the Minnesota Digital Opportunity Plan
Goal 1: Connect People to People
1. Minnesota’s digital opportunity advocates and educators statewide are a strong, united group that can lean on each other for fresh ideas, new strategies, and consistent support.
a. Pilot a structured Digital Opportunity Leaders Network that combines local energy, regional expertise, and statewide continuity. The Digital Opportunity Leaders Network includes three tiers of participation:
i. Local participation through Digital Connection Committees (DCCs)
ii. Regional coordination and technical support for DCCs through contracted regional digital opportunity partners
iii. State coordination for regions from OBD
b. Convene an inter-agency digital opportunity workgroup with appointed membership from state agencies representing key partners and covered populations.
c. Expand the DCC model of engagement through annual recruitment campaigns.
d. Retain existing DCCs through regularly scheduled virtual meetings and ongoing communication from OBD.
Progress towards this first objective will be tracked by measuring the number of Digital Connection Committees statewide.
2. All Minnesotans have access to a trusted provider of digital skills training, including training that addresses cybersecurity.
a. Administer grants designed to support digital navigation services, targeting rural cities, rural counties, and organizations that both represent and serve covered populations.
b. Collaborate with internet service providers who are receiving state and federal infrastructure funds to ensure newly connected households understand the basics of cybersecurity.
c. Provide all Community Action Partnership (CAP) agencies, Centers for Independent Living, regional public library systems, veteran homes, and area agencies on aging a non-competitive funding opportunity to pilot digital navigator positions that support clients with digital access and skills needs.
d. Prepare a report that explores models for a statewide technology assistance helpline.
Progress towards this second objective will be measured by increases in: i) the number of individuals reached through expanded and new digital skills programs ii) the proportion of eligible Minnesota households enrolled in the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program, and iii) the proportion of eligible Minnesota households enrolled in the FCC's Lifeline program. For both programs, Minnesota is aiming to have 70 percent of eligible households enrolled by 2028.
3. All Minnesotans have access to a trusted provider of quality technical support.
a. Develop curriculum and administer grants designed to support high schools, after-school programs, and 2-year public and tribal colleges in hiring and training students to work part-time as paid tech repair technicians.
b. Administer grants to small businesses to assess their technology needs and improve their technology access.
The measure of progress towards the third objective is the number of i) devices repaired through school tech repair programs and ii) small businesses reporting improved technology access.
Goal 2: Connect People to Information
This goal recognizes the significance of data and information as tools for advancing digital opportunities at both the local and statewide levels. It also aims to foster collaboration among diverse communities to create new avenues for data-driven digital opportunity decision-making. Information gains its value by the ways people use it to fuel change.
Transparency is a key value at the core of this goal, emphasizing the importance of open access to information as well as the expert assistance it sometimes takes to make meaning out of it. Making data and information readily available allows for collaboration and informed decision-making, empowering communities to bridge the digital divide and fully utilize the resources offered by technology. By championing accessibility, this goal simultaneously ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to benefit from digital availability of information.
1. Minnesotans can access comprehensive data and mapping tools to evaluate digital opportunity in their area as well as statewide.
a. Expand OBD’s staff to include a position supporting digital opportunity data collection and analysis.
b. Build upon OBD’s broadband infrastructure maps to include measures of digital opportunity, similar to Purdue University’s Digital Divide Index.
c. Enhance readily available data with additional data measuring baseline digital literacy and baseline cybersecurity awareness across covered populations.
d. Incorporate a directory of digital opportunity resources and partners for public reference.
OBD hopes to have a staff member dedicated to digital opportunity data analytics by 2028. The office will further track progress towards this objective by measuring unique views of its digital opportunity mapping tool and resource directory.
2. All Minnesota townships, cities, counties, and tribes have the opportunity to create localized data-driven digital opportunity plans to support their residents and tribal members.
a. Administer non-competitive formula grants to townships, cities, counties, regional development commissions, and tribes that seek funding to conduct local evaluation and develop their own digital opportunity plans.
b. Allow townships, cities, counties, tribes, and other entities to contribute data collected under formula grants to OBD’s comprehensive digital opportunity data and mapping tools.
c. Partner with University of Minnesota Extension to develop curriculum and deliver a cohort-based training series for townships, cities, counties, and tribes new to digital opportunity planning to receive additional guidance and support.
To reach this objective, the OBD is aiming that, by 2028, 150 cities, counties, and tribes have adopted their own digital opportunity plans (only 4 have to date)—and all tribes and counties along with 50 cities support digital opportunity policies and initiatives.
Goal 3: Connect People to Resources
This goal relates to reliable fixed and wireless broadband internet service; internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; and applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration.
1. All Minnesota households have the option to afford the internet service available at their location.
a. Amplify opportunities for internet service providers receiving state and federal infrastructure funds to market income-based subsidy programs, like ACP, to newly connected households.
b. Collaborate with MN Housing, EducationSuperHighway, North Country Service Cooperative, and other housing partners to improve internet and device access for Minnesota’s apartment, multi-dwelling unit, and manufactured housing residents.
c. Prepare a report that explores potential models for a statewide program similar to ACP and Lifeline to reduce internet costs for low-income Minnesota households.
To reach this objective, OBD aims for, by 2028, broadband subscriptions in 95 percent of Minnesota's households, relying upon, as noted above, 70 percent of eligible households participating in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program and 50 percent of eligible households participating in the federal Lifeline program.
2. All Minnesota adults have the option to afford a large-screen device or smartphone, whichever most efficiently helps them access the applications they require.
a. Research models for a statewide program similar to ACP that offers a device discount for low-income Minnesotans.
b. Prepare a report that explores sustainable state-managed system for circulating large-screen devices as long-term loans through collaborating public programs.
In addition to the subscription target mentioned above, OBD wants to, by 2028, decrease the proportion of Minnesota households with access to only a smartphone from 6.4 percent to 2 percent and the proportion of Minnesota households with access to only a tablet from 0.9 percent to 0.25 percent.
3. New digital opportunity pathways reach Minnesotans who are at high risk for being digitally excluded.
a. Collaborate with MN Department of Corrections and the MN Career Education Center to ensure formerly incarcerated Minnesotans who are re-entering society receive full re-entry supports connecting them to digital technologies when legally permissible.
b. Collaborate with DEED’s Office of New Americans to support access to digital skills training and resources for immigrants and refugees.
c. Partner with DEED’s CareerForce locations to expand digital skills training and resources for career seekers.
d. Administer competitive grant funding to organizations serving covered populations that are conducting digital opportunity work.
For covered populations, by 2028, OBD wants to reach 95 percent of people with:
- broadband internet subscriptions,
- laptop or desktop computers,
- the digital skills and technical support needed to accomplish their individual technology goals,
- comfort identifying and mitigating cybersecurity issues, and
- using state, local, and tribal government websites without barriers related to accessibility standards.
The Minnesota Office of Broadband Development (OBD) envisions four implementation phases for the digital equity plan:
Phase 1: Aligning—July 1, 2025-June 30, 2026—Focus on convening and connecting with partners; additional information gathering; preparing requests for proposals (RFPs) and other materials.
Phase 2: Amplifying—July 1, 2026-June 30, 2027—Focus is on publicizing information; research; initiating new programs.
Phase 3: Accelerating—July 1, 2027-June 30, 2028—Focus on scaling up activities; expanding and refining programs; updating public information.
Phase 4: Evolving—July 1, 2028-June 30, 2029—Focus on assessing all progress and future needs; concluding and/or transitioning grant projects; preparing for future.
Request for Public Comment
The Office of Broadband Development released this draft plan on August 21 and is accepting public comment on the proposal through September 29. OBD is conducting listening sessions in 16 locations around the state plus two virtual sessions. These sessions are free and open to all.
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