U, partners take steps to keep students connected online during the pandemic

The University of Minnesota is providing students with resources to stay online, like computers and internet access.

Sarah Mai

Sarah Mai

by Nat Jacobwith

The University of Minnesota and public and private dollars are working to keep students connected to the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and about a dozen other senators introduced the Keeping Critical Connections Act, bipartisan legislation that appropriates $2 billion to provide free or discounted broadband access during the pandemic. The University is also offering resources to provide students with internet access so they can complete their online coursework.

For University students heading home, broadband access across the country varies widely. State broadband maps show patchy coverage, especially in rural areas. 

In a recent University survey with more than 1,000 responses, 2.5% of students said they had no internet, and 21% said their internet was only reliable sometimes, said University Associate Vice Provost for Student Success LeeAnn Melin. 

Melin said addressing the basic needs of students is a top priority. With new weekly meetings addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and a transition to one-on-one remote advising, she said the colleges are doing well with supporting students. The University’s technology help page also has a list of up-to-date resources for students. 

Additionally, 4.4% of survey respondents said they do not have access to a reliable computer. Melin said the University is working to lend those students computers so that there is not an associated fee that would affect their financial aid. The University will soon decide whether these programs will extend into the summer.

“How are we helping students be successful in this new world?” Melin asked. 

As students move online, the same amount of internet traffic that used to happen at offices and homes has moved almost completely to residential areas since the start of the pandemic, said Brent Christensen, president and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance.

The higher traffic is putting a strain on networks, but many internet service providers have been stepping up, and the networks have been able to handle the additional traffic, said Nathan Zacharias, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition. 

However, temporary fixes are not permanent solutions, he said.

“It’s been bringing a much-needed utility to people that can change their lives,” Zacharias said. 

Increasing broadband access is an expensive undertaking, and other states have been modeling legislation based on Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Grant, Christensen said. The Border-to-Border Grant can provide up to 50% of broadband projects’ infrastructure costs, but many smaller telecommunications companies are still doing the work for free, Christensen said.

“I’m so proud of our members because we work in small rural towns,” Christensen said. “They’re working with their communities and identifying students and people in need.”

Comcast is also creating solutions to address lacking internet access due to COVID-19, said Jill Hornbacher, Comcast’s director of external communications. Students who live in a service area can sign up for an Xfinity plan with no upfront costs and will receive a Visa prepaid card worth about two months of internet access. Also, low-income families who sign up for the service for the first time receive 60 days of the Internet Essentials package for free. 

Xfinity WiFi hotspots at all business and outdoor locations are also now available for anyone to use regardless of whether they subscribe to Xfinity. Comcast is providing customers with unlimited data and holding off on disconnecting people.

Zacharias and Christensen said they remain hopeful about expanding broadband to all populated parts of the state, even if that means in the next few years and not the next few months.

“It’s a combination of private investment, federal dollars and state money,” Christensen said. “We’re on track to get to those areas.”