Broadband access bridges the digital divide

Enbridge grant gives students in rural Minnesota equitable access to the internet

In the northern Minnesota communities of Mahnomen, Waubun, Ogema and White Earth, internet access can be spotty at best. The problem is twofold. First, modern telecommunications infrastructure is lacking. And second, many families can’t afford the pricy costs of rural high-speed internet.

Inequitable access to the internet affects the community at large, including young students whose future depends on accessing online resources for education, skills development and technological literacy, all needed in our connected world.

“Some kids have (internet), some don’t,” says Lisa Weber, superintendent of Waubun-Ogema-White Earth Schools, whose two K-to-12 schools are located on the White Earth Reservation.

“It’s an inequitable service for our kids. All kids have the right to learn and have access to internet, technology and resources,” she says.

The digital divide between those with internet and those without was amplified throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with students needing to do home-based learning online.

“It’s been an uphill climb for us,” Weber remarks.

That’s all changing with a $366,000 Enbridge grant that will provide broadband access for a combined 1,400 students in the Waubun-Ogema-White Earth and Mahnomen school districts.

The grant will cover home internet costs for families in need, ensuring all students can take advantage of the online learning opportunities that are integral to a modern education.

“It will open doors and keep them open for students,” Weber says. “Equitable is making sure kids have equal access to improve educational opportunities and to provide for our neediest students.”

The grant provides a necessary short-term solution that will significantly improve the educational experiences of students. The region, Weber explains, still has a larger problem: it needs more reliable and faster internet access. For that, the community is counting on telecommunications companies to invest in rural infrastructure, to lay cables and build towers that will improve internet coverage and speed.

“The Tribes and telecommunications companies have a plan to work to get the infrastructure built over time,” Weber says. “But we need things to move quicker for our students,” she adds, noting that the Enbridge grant provides an immediate solution to the problem of inequitable internet access.

Partnerships, like that with Enbridge, hold the key to success. “In rural Minnesota, we work together to make things happen,” Weber continues.

That community spirit is fueling the momentum for better internet.

“We want our students to grow up and stay here and live here and build their careers here,” she says. “Access to broadband internet is important for the future of our community.”