Digital Equity and Inclusion in Door County: Bridging the Digital Divide

In the United States, there is a gap that exists between digital haves and have-nots. Access to “tangible things,” like computers, tablets, smartphones and a high-speed internet connection, as well as access to “non-tangibles things,” like the skill sets required to access the internet and use technology, is not always a given. Indeed, as the ability to access the online world has increasingly become a requirement of everyday life, the inability to access that world increasingly becomes a larger barrier to financial stability and success.

This gap is referred to as the Digital Divide. It is a very real aspect of life for many Door County residents that prevents equal participation in society and disproportionately affects low-income households, people with disabilities, people in rural areas, older adults, and people of color.
For several years, Quantum Technologies has been partnering with several local organizations, and has been involved in a number of countywide Digital Equity and Inclusion initiatives, to address the peninsula’s Digital Divide. More recently, Quantum has been involved in the early stages of building a community task force designed to specifically address all aspects of Door County’s technology gap.

What is Digital Equity and Inclusion?

In order to better define “Digital Equity and Inclusion,” it helps to separate an explanation of the subject into its two constituent parts.

Digital Equity: For all individuals and communities, Digital Equity means having the ability to fully participate in our society, democracy and economy from a technological standpoint. It also means having available the skill sets, technology and infrastructure to access educational, employer, commercial, government and medical websites to name a few. In order for every American to be fully engaged in both civic and cultural life, maintain employment and have access to essential services, Digital Equity is a requirement and a necessity.

Digital Inclusion: When people discuss Digital Inclusion, they are specifically referring to the steps that need to be taken, and strategies that need to be implemented, in order to ensure that all individuals and communities have the ability to access and use digital technologies. These steps and strategies can take many forms, like legislative action, financial investment, and grassroots/community organization, and should be designed to remove barriers that limit access to digital technology.

Digital Inclusion means increasing access to digital technologies on a number of fronts, including access to: 

  • Affordable and reliable broadband internet service
  • User-friendly, internet-enabled devices
  • Digital literacy training

Barriers to achieving Digital Equity in Door County

What are the ways the Digital Divide affects the residents of Door County? While the answer to this question is complex, in simple terms, the 3 main digital technologies required for achieving Digital Inclusion that are mentioned above, also pose the most significant barriers to achieving Digital Equity and Inclusion across the peninsula. 

High-speed internet access

The first barrier to achieving Digital Equity in Door County is access to reliable, high-speed internet. The FCC defines high-speed internet, also called broadband, as a minimum download speed of 25 megabits-per-second and minimum upload speed of 3 megabits-per-second (abbreviated as 25Mbps/3Mbps). In 2022, those standards are outdated. Instead, upload speeds of 100Mbps and download speeds of 10Mbps are now commonly regarded as “high-speed,” and adequate to access the internet as it currently exists.

The problem is, residents in large swaths of Door County don’t have access to speeds of 25Mbps/3Mbps, let alone 100Mbps/10Mbps. Part of the issue is the naturally hilly and wooded topography of the peninsula, which generally renders wireless internet ineffective. However, an even larger part of the issue is one that mirrors the overall problem with high-speed internet access across the United States—namely, areas with lots of people (i.e.: cities) tend to have plenty of access to broadband internet, while areas with fewer people (i.e.: rural areas) tend to have little to no access to the same level of broadband service.
In the more densely populated portions of the peninsula, like Sturgeon Bay, Fish Creek, Bailey’s Harbor and Sister Bay, internet speeds can be extremely fast—as high as 940Mbps/35Mbps. Outside of those areas, average speeds can be as slow as 6Mbps/2Mbps. In fact, only 70% of Door County residents have access to internet speeds of 25Mbps/3Mbps, and only 55% of peninsula residents have access to true broadband speeds of 100Mbps/10Mbps or higher. Perhaps more shocking than the fact that 30% or more of the county’s residents lack access to high-speed internet, is that 20% of county residents—that is, 1 in 5—don’t have internet access at all.

Access to digital technology

There are multiple pieces required to put the Digital Equity “puzzle” together. One large piece of that puzzle is the physical hardware and software needed to access the internet—in other words, Door County can have the fastest possible internet infrastructure countywide, but it won’t help people who can’t afford technology. So, where building the infrastructure to provide broadband to every resident may pose the largest physical obstacle to achieving Digital Equity in Door County, surmounting the seemingly smaller obstacle of getting computers into the hands of people who can’t afford them is equally important.

According to The U.S. Census Bureau, the overall poverty rate in Wisconsin is 10.8%. Additionally, the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a statewide nonpartisan and independent policy research organization, has found that 8% of Wisconsin residents do not own a computer—a number that is nearly on par with the state’s poverty rate. While the poverty rate in Door County is lower, at 8.31%, a number like that still means 2,270 of the county’s roughly 27,000 permanent residents live on less than $13,590 a year (based on numbers for an individual).

For those living at, near, or below the poverty line, the upfront costs associated with owning technologies like laptop computers, tablets and smartphones can be prohibitive. Beyond the initial cost of purchasing the computer—the average price of a personal computer is currently $632—there is also the additional costs of any software and maintenance that may be required. 

Digital literacy

It shouldn’t be assumed that in 2023 everyone has basic technology skills. In particular, if they don’t have regular access to digital devices, building skill sets over time can be nearly impossible (for example, imagine trying to learn applications like Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Excel without a computer). Beyond that, for older adults who didn’t grow up with technology, learning basic computing and internet skills later in life can be particularly daunting—akin to learning a new language. This last point holds more weight in Door County as it is the 5th oldest county in Wisconsin with a median age of 53.5 (based on 2018 statistics) and with 31% of its population aged 65 and over.

Via wisconsinliteracy.org, digital literacy means having:

  • Technical skills—the ability to effectively use and navigate computers, smartphones, tablets, email, the internet, word processing applications, and virtual platforms
  • Critical thinking skills—the ability to effectively search the internet, evaluate online information, use the internet safely, and solve problems with technology

The importance of digital literacy cannot be understated—just as the absence of high-speed internet, or a device that affords one the ability to access the internet, the absence of digital skills sets can limit employment options and can create barriers to accessing government assistance programs (like the Health and Human Services (HHS), Medicare and Social Security websites) and financial institutions (like banks).

The real-world effects of Digital Inequity—remote schooling during the pandemic

While studies and statistics are helpful, they only paint a partial picture of the issue. To get a more complete view, it helps to look at the real-world consequences of the Digital Divide, and perhaps nothing exposed that divide more than the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.

In March 2020, the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown resulted in schools across the United States—including all school districts in Door County—closing their classrooms and going to remote learning via video conferencing applications like Zoom. And, although this policy had the highly beneficial effect of keeping children and their families healthy and safe, a November, 2021 study of Door County broadband internet access commissioned by the Door County Economic Development Corporation (DCEDC) described the educational gap that developed this way: “[The Door County] school system was badly impacted by the pandemic. The school system solved some of this problem by distributing cellular hotspots, but then found that cellular coverage was so poor in [some] parts of the county that the hotspots didn’t function.” 

“During the pandemic,” reflects Quantum Technologies owner Nathan Drager, “when the county went to virtual learning, it turns out that 1 out of every 5 school-age kids couldn’t attend school remotely because their internet was either too slow, or they just didn’t have it, and Zoom requires a lot of bandwidth. So, for nearly 2 years,” he remarks, “20% of the county’s kids were left behind.”

Bridging the Digital Divide—coming together to solve Door County’s Digital Equity and Inclusion issues

In August of 2022, Door County’s Broadband Coordinator Jessica Hatch began reaching out to local organizations to create a community task force that could address the county’s Digital Divide. “In my role as Broadband Coordinator,” Hatch says, “one part of my job is to ensure there is someone with broadband expertise that can work hand-in-hand with all of the peninsula’s different communities and municipalities. The other part is to address Digital Equity and Inclusion, which was an issue I knew we needed to tackle sooner rather than later.” 

Hatch reached out to Drager almost immediately. “Nathan was the first person I contacted,” she remarks, “because I know him and I know Quantum Technologies—they are the county’s premiere technology company and they are also very community minded in their approach to what they are trying to achieve. And,” she adds, “they are also already doing some of the work—teaching Learning In Retirement (LIR) classes and refurbishing old technology.”

Next, she reached out to Amy Kohnle, Executive Director of The United Way of Door County. “Our work is focused on the areas of healthy lifestyles, education and financial stability, and our mission is to help people to live to their fullest potential within those areas,” Kohnle says, adding, “Anything people might be struggling with where barriers need to be removed—transportation or mental health, for example—we work to remove those barriers.” She continues, “The pandemic lockdown brought to light the fact that we all don’t have equal access to technology and we learned that broadband was a necessity—a basic need, a barrier that needed to be removed. So that’s why, when Jessica approached me about being a part of this work, I said, ‘You bet, we need to be there.’”

Building county-wide high-speed internet infrastructure

A large part of Hatch and Kohnle’s role in working to increase access to broadband internet is finding the funding to install a fiber optic network throughout Door County. “In Door County, our focus is on fiber to the premise,” Hatch explains. “Other technologies, like wireless, work in places where the topography is flat,” she continues, “but, wireless needs to be updated every 6-8 years. With fiber, the baseline is 20 years, but there are case studies where it continues to work after 30–40 years. It’s a future-proof technology, and that’s what federal funding is tied to—future-proof, terrestrial, wireline service.”

Another part of Hatch’s and Kohnle’s mission is an initiative aimed at getting residents to respond to surveys that provide an accurate reflection of the internet speeds and service they are really receiving. While this may seem trivial, it is incredibly important. The previously-mentioned DCEDC study also found that Door County Internet Service Providers (ISPs) regularly over-estimate the quality of the internet they are providing. As a result, that study found “the FCC believes that almost everybody in the county has access to 25Mbps/3Mbps broadband.” Because federal funding is tied to reported broadband speeds, collecting accurate data through surveys means the county can contest reports provided to the FCC by those ISPs. Hatch explains, “We can use that data—the survey response information—to apply for grants. For those residents looking for better access to the internet,” she adds, “please fill out the surveys, please self report on the quality of your internet service.”

While Hatch and Kohnle have been working on the funding end of the high-speed internet issue, Quantum Technologies, alongside a number of other organizations, has already begun installing a fiber optic network in portions of Door County. “As a fiber optic contractor, our role has been in construction, splicing, installation, testing, and maintaining the fiber networks,” says Drager. “We have been working with Jessica Hatch and the county, and partnering with multiple ISPs, operators, municipalities, and other fiber contractors that are advancing fiber in Door County.”

In particular, Quantum has been involved with, and integral to, the ongoing installation of a fiber optic network on Washington Island, is working with Nsight/Cellcom on the Liberty Grove and Baileys Harbor Pilot Projects, and is already connecting residents in Gills Rock.

Providing Door County residents with access to digital technology
In looking to get digital devices into the hands of those in need, Hatch points to the Dane County program called DANEnet. “DANEnet, which has been around since 1997,” she says, “is a really effective model. The qualifiers they use to provide people with devices run through the county’s HHS Department.” Hatch continues, “That means if someone is going to qualify for WIC, or medicaid, or their child qualifies for free and reduced lunches, they’ll also qualify for an affordable connectivity program. So in the future, our plan is to have local HHS counselors and other nonprofit staff fill out requests for devices, and also assist people with registering for the affordable connectivity program as qualifying providers become available in Door County.”

Like the program Hatch, Kohnle and Quantum Technologies are putting together, DANEnet provides residents with refurbished computers. By way of example, Kohnle points to the United Way to outline how the program works. “We have 10 employees in our office,” she says, “and every 3 years we try to replace our laptops if possible. We try to stagger the replacement, so that’s about 3 laptops per year in our small, 10-person office. If you scale up to a 100-person office,” she continues, “they’re probably rotating out 30 computers a year—that’s a lot of e-waste.” Instead, the program aims to set up collection sites across the county, collect the used computers, and refurbish them. “If the computers are only 3 years old,” she notes, “then they probably have another 3 to 4 years of life in them with just a few updates. And that means a family in need can have that laptop in their home—have that device that allows them to access the online world as many of us do everyday.”

“Nathan, and his team, have been really excited to partner with us on this program,” Kohnle adds. Indeed, Quantum has already been refurbishing the community’s used desktop and laptop computers, smartphones, and tablets. “We are always refurbishing devices,” Drager points out. “We have a pretty consistent stream of hardware,” he says, “and are often able to provide a credit to our clients after hardware refreshes by refurbishing and selling their old devices.”

“Recently, when the YMCA bought new computers, Quantum refurbished the old hardware,” Drager adds. “They made those refurbished computers available for their employees to purchase, and so the computers went back into service instead of the landfill.” In 2021, Quantum Technologies was able to raise $12,000 for St. John Bosco school following the refurbishment of over 150 donated devices.

For computers to qualify for refurbishment, they need to meet a few criteria—donated computers need to:

  • Be no older than 6 years old
  • Be fully operational
  • Have a minimum 4GB of RAM
  • Come with the power cord

Digital literacy classes for the Door County community
Quantum Technologies has already been involved in Door County digital literacy initiatives. “Over the last 5 years,” Drager remarks, “we have provided at least 100 digital literacy classes to the community.”

“For the elderly person who needs to access telehealth or wants to FaceTime with their relatives,” says Kohnle, “they’re probably going to need a few tips and tricks in order to navigate the device they’re using—in order to feel comfortable. And,” she continues, “they’re going to need training on how to navigate the internet. If I’m 80, and somebody hands me a laptop, I’m not necessarily going to know what is safe to click on, for instance.”

“We currently have a curriculum of around 30 classes,” says Drager, “that cover basic topics—cell phone basics, email basics, Microsoft Office basics, using the internet safely, how to clean your computer, how Wi-Fi works, cloud storage 101, daily computer functions—those kinds of skills.”

Classes are currently taught at the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) Learning In Retirement (LIR) program and NWTC Learning and Innovation Center, as well as at the YMCA, Kress Pavilion (specifically the Repair Cafe), and the Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC). Digital Equity and Inclusion courses have been taught at the ADRC and will likely continue to be taught at that location.

To name only a few of the benefits of Digital Equity and Inclusion initiatives: educational outcomes are improved when schools can educate students remotely and with the newest technology and resources; civic engagement and participation in local government is increased when every citizen can easily access information; healthcare outcomes, particularly in rural areas, are improved with access to telehealth; and economic development is strengthened by more widespread and equitably-distributed high-speed internet infrastructure, leading to higher employment rates and lower strain on social safety nets. 

Addressing Digital Equity and Inclusion, and bridging the Digital Divide, is as important an issue for Door County as it is for all municipalities across the United States. Digital Equity and Inclusion benefits not only those who are receiving direct assistance, but lifts the quality of life for every person in their respective communities. 

If you are interested in finding out how fast your current internet speeds are, go to speedtest.net. The website will provide your current upload and down speeds, as well as other metrics related to internet speed. To self-report on the quality of your internet service via the Public Service Commission/Wisconsin Broadband survey please click here

All of Quantum Technologies’ available digital literacy classes are free and open to the public. Classes are currently advertised through Quantum’s Facebook page, which can be accessed by clicking here, or sign up for Quantum’s Newsletter mailing list, which will also include information about classes, at quantumpc.com

If you are interested in donating unused computers, tablets or smartphones for refurbishment, please call us at (920) 256-1214 or bring your unused tech directly into the Quantum Technologies store, located at 619 N. 8th Ave in Sturgeon Bay.

Stay tuned for more as Digital Equity and Inclusion initiatives across Door County come into sharper focus and continue to develop and grow over the coming months and years!