Internet access has become an imperative part of modern life. Over the years, a connection to the internet has grown from being a luxury to an essential utility. According to the FCC, over 14 million Americans have no internet access in their homes. The challenges presented by Covid-19 have only exacerbated the problem, and without access to the internet, people are unable to work remotely, complete schoolwork, attend tele-health medical appointments, or do other things like order groceries. Lack of internet at home means people are more inclined to linger in public spaces like coffee shops to obtain it. This leads to an increase in exposure and infections, therefore one could even argue lack of internet access has become a public health concern.
In 2019, Community Action Duluth conducted a comprehensive needs assessment. This was a survey distributed to program participants as well as a variety of community members aiming to reveal areas where there is a lack of access to resources. We discovered in an analysis of demographics that many people who completed the assessment were unable to access the internet. We also found there is a large disparity in internet access between whites and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) individuals, as is often true when it comes to issues faced by low-income populations. This inspired us to introduce the TechUp program, which would provide laptops and internet connection directly to those in need. The program enables participants to pursue their educational and financial goals in an increasingly digitized world. It is also in response to Covid-19, as many resources have moved online and thus out of reach for anyone without internet access. This only widens the digital divide already present in our community.
Since TechUp launched in July of 2020, 171 people obtained laptops and 88 received Wi-Fi hot spots (a hot spot is a physical location where people can access the internet, typically using Wi-Fi, via a wireless local area network (WLAN) with a router connected to an internet service provider). We purchased low cost laptops from Tech Discounts and PCs for People. There is also the opportunity for recipients to participate in the Northstar Digital Literacy program, offered in partnership with Duluth Public Schools. This course helps those who are unfamiliar with the technology or how to navigate the internet to learn the skills necessary to be confident in their digital abilities. CAD is in pursuit of further grant funds in order to expand the program and acquire more computers. We will also be hosting a Digital Navigator in partnership with Duluth Workforce Development to answer questions and address technical issues and concerns. Partners such as CareerForce and Lake Superior College referred current recipients, as well as some who were participants in other CAD services. There is currently a waiting list for new participants, but anyone interested in being added to the waitlist may call Dawn at the front desk at (218) 726-1665.