Minnesota Public Radio, June 4, 2012
Payments to a little-known fund intended to expand Internet access in Minneapolis have all but dried up. The company that created the citywide Wi-Fi network was required to establish the fund as part of its contract. USI Wireless was expected to replenish the fund every year as profits grew. But that hasn’t happened, and critics say it’s just one example of how the Wi-Fi network has fallen short of early hopes.
The Minneapolis Digital Inclusion Fund was set up five years ago to help low-income people, seniors, displaced workers, and others harness the power of the Internet.
And for a couple of years, the fund doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of community organizations that applied for grants. The programs taught digital literacy to immigrants at libraries and built a computer lab at a center serving homeless youth. A half-million dollars from USI Wireless gave the fund its early momentum.
But more than a year ago, the Twin Cities-based company stopped annual payments to the fund. Critics, including Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, say the lack of support for the fund has been disappointing.
“The problem of digital inclusion, to make sure everyone has access, is a very hard problem,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think the digital inclusion fund was ever going to solve all of these problems, but it was a tiny step in the right direction, and it’s frustrating that even that tiny step turned out not to be a tiny step.”