Imagine if you had to drive to your local library to virtually visit with a therapist about your increasing anxiety during the pandemic. Or imagine if you had to drive to the community center to ask your doctor to take a look at the mole that appeared on your forearm. It sounds inconvenient, invasive, and awkward.
And yet, for as long as one in 10 Minnesotans lacks access to broadband internet, we are telling our (mostly rural) neighbors that we don’t care how inconvenient, invasive, and awkward it can be for them to see their doctor.
Broadband internet access is a health care equity issue, and we need to do more.
The “Minnesota Model” for building broadband access, as the Pew Charitable Trusts calls it, is working, pulling state, federal, local, and private money into partnerships. At the start of the year, the Federal Communications Commission announced that more than $408 million would flow into Minnesota to establish broadband internet. In June, the state Legislature approved an additional $70 million.
In Northeastern Minnesota, a partnership with the state of Minnesota, the Minnesota Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and the Bois Forte community pulled together nearly $2.5 million for a project that brings internet to Nett Lake, Palmquist, Indian Point, and Vermilion. Similarly, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa partnered with the state to bring broadband to the western part of the city of Cloquet and Perch Lake Township.
The Cloquet partnership was prescient: It promised in 2019, according to the state, that “faster internet speeds will open up … telemedicine, home health care, electronic health records, online schooling, business development and more.” The Fond du Lac Band understands broadband access is access to health care.
But: the communities which remain disconnected from broadband are the ones which most need our support — the ones without access to professional grant writers and entrepreneurial businesses and nonprofits who can spearhead initiatives to seek Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grants.
According to Zomi Bloom, telehealth program manager with Wilderness Health, a collaborative of hospitals, clinics, and other health care facilities working together to improve health care in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin, “People are accessing healthcare through virtual means (like telehealth visits), accessing medical records online, and using patient portals to communicate with providers and schedule appointments. High speed, reliable internet connection is essential for a successful telemedicine visit.”
In a message to me, Bloom also stated, “Telemedicine allows people to access care when they aren’t able to travel or when their roles as breadwinner, parent, or caregiver makes healthcare difficult to schedule in a busy day. Virtual healthcare is here, now, and we need to do everything we can to accommodate all residents.”
St. Louis County Commissioner Ashley Grimm put it best in an electronic message to me: "This pandemic has made clear that broadband isn’t a luxury; it is a necessity. We as a county have the opportunity to lead on this issue, help provide expertise, and back our words with real investment. St. Louis County is currently planning to dedicate $2 million to broadband investment from our American Rescue Plan funds, but we need to increase that number substantially to help meet this need."
Instead of telling our fellow citizens in these last communities without broadband internet access that we will support you “if you ask for it,” it’s time for the Minnesota Model to work to bring the internet to communities without the resources or the ability to ask.
David Beard teaches writing and communication at the University of Minnesota Duluth.