A look at Minnesota's digital divide during a pandemic

With workplaces, schools and libraries closed while Minnesotans are sequestered at home to combat COVID-19’s spread, those without adequate online access may experience additional hardships and isolation during the quarantine.

Data from the last American Community Survey show more than 330,000 Minnesotans lack home internet connectivity – and a similar number don’t even have computers – making remote work, continuing education and accessing basic government services in a time of pandemic even more challenging.

Though the state's digital divide has gradually narrowed over time, the poorest and most vulnerable still struggle keeping technological pace.

And even among those who do have home internet access, it’s not always fast enough, since about 10 percent of Minnesota households don’t have high-speed broadband connections (with roughly 10,000 statewide still using dial-up).

Rural regions of the state still struggle accessing quality wired internet, with large areas of greater Minnesota remaining unserved or underserved.

In the Twin Cities metro area, this technological gap is also pronounced in Northside and central Minneapolis, where a quarter or more of some census tracts still aren’t online via home subscription, according to the most recent federal surveys. These trends extend into the some of the city’s less prosperous northern suburbs.

Percent without internet subscriptions

Individuals most affected by these technological disparities are often found among nonwhite, elderly, less educated and lower income populations, census data shows.

Income is seemingly the biggest predictor of online connectivity, with issues of cost surrounding quality internet access raising a significant barrier for the poorest residents.

In response, the outdoor citywide USI Wireless service in Minneapolis has been made freely available during COVID-19 quarantines. Comcast, similarly, has opened its Xfinity wi-fi network and is offering free unlimited data for the time being, and various wireless providers have lifted their usage caps.

And reliable online access is just one component of being adequately connected in the digital age.

Though wireless internet use on mobile phones has significantly increased over time, wired broadband through a personal computer is still a consistently more viable option for submitting paperwork, finishing homework and working with commonplace applications like spreadsheets, image editing software and word processors – programs that may have less-capable smartphone versions available.

That same American Community Survey – which asks questions about technological access and ownership – shows about a fifth of Minnesota households lack more powerful devices like desktops and laptops, while about 8 percent don’t have any computers at all.

Even those connected at home may currently be experiencing sluggish speeds, buffering and interuptions as service providers try keeping up with increased demand during the governor's shelter-in-place order.

Still, Minnesota could be worse off, and hovers around the top dozen states nationally for broadband access at home, and is the most connected in its five-state region.

In a time of global crisis, about 17.8 million American households are without a home internet subscription and roughly 10 million don’t have computers.