Digital Divide Remains as Broadband Stimulus Spending Leads to Less Usage

A $3.6 million Broadband Access Project that the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota first flagged in a 2009 investigative report has done nothing to close the digital divide in underserved Twin Cities neighborhoods, according to a recent report on KSTP-TV.

The University of Minnesota project, which received $2.8 million in federal stimulus funds and $800,000 in local matching funds, was highlighted by FFM in an October 2009 Accountability Alert. In their application for stimulus funding, the University of Minnesota made the bold claim that it will “close the Digital Divide in four Twin Cities poverty zones.” Eleven computer labs in Minneapolis and St. Paul intended for use by “underserved populations” were upgraded and expanded.

The project description states, “the University of Minnesota is uniquely qualified to carry out this project. The Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center, Office for Business and Community Development, and Extension Services have decades of combined experience in public engagement, broadband and Internet training, and development of computer curricula for public audiences.”

The KSTP-TV investigation, however, showed that the targeted underserved populations are more underserved than ever with fewer people using the computer labs after the infusion of millions of federal taxpayer dollars than before, according to reports filed with the federal government.

After checking all eleven computer labs, KSTP-TV found “erratic hours, difficult-to-find locations and even closed and locked labs when the doors were supposed to be open to the public.”

In the fall of 2009, The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, via a Minnesota Data Practices Act request, sought a copy of the State of Minnesota’s “wish list” of broadband projects. These projects were recommended to receive funding under the federal broadband stimulus program administered by the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). At that time, Minnesota officials declined FFM’s request to review the proposals and the state’s recommendations, citing state law.

Minnesota was one of a handful of states that refused to make its list of broadband stimulus project recommendations public in advance of funding decisions being handed down by the federal government. This decision prompted local and national criticism. The state list of recommendations was not released to FFM until April 2011. The Broadband Access Project at the University of Minnesota was one of only two projects recommended by then Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Glenn Wilson in the sustainable broadband adoption and public computing center categories.

“This is a matter of transparency in government, plain and simple,” Annette Meeks, CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, said at the time. “We were told that the record-setting stimulus spending would be accompanied by record-setting transparency. Numerous other states have released their recommendations. It’s not too late to do the right thing and open up the books in Minnesota.”

Ultimately, it’s a case of taxpayers, as well as the intended recipients of the project, being “under-served” by another federal broadband stimulus program. In October 2009 FFM also flagged a $70 million broadband stimulus proposal in Lake County that subsequently became one of the most controversial in the country.

Tips or comments? Contact Tom Steward, Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.

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