Nearly a third of Calhoun County residents lack meaningful access to broadband Internet, while others face financial and other barriers to this service, but a new coalition is forming to change that.

Organizers of the Digital Equity Coalition of Calhoun Coalition say that all residents, regardless of income or address, should have access to broadband, and they are inviting the public to join in their effort.

The coalition will hold a video conference at 11 a.m. Sept. 24 to begin organizing a community effort to close the digital divide. The event will feature keynotes from Kim Carter, superintendent of Battle Creek   Public Schools, and Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

The event is free and attendance unlimited. Those interested in participating can contact Angela Stewart at angela@bccfoundation.org or by calling her at 269-962-2181.

“High-speed internet is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ luxury,” said Michael McCullough, a librarian at Willard Library and one of the organizers. “Whether working and studying from home, or applying for unemployment compensation, accessing health care or looking for a job, broadband internet has become an essential tool.”

The digital divide is the gap between individuals and communities that have, and those who do not have, access to information technologies necessary to succeed in today’s economy.

Although the issue is not new, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how pervasive technological inequality is in the United States, and how families’ lack of access to computers and reliable internet robs students of educational opportunities.

It is especially acute in rural areas, where broadband access is nonexistent, and in low-income communities, where residents often are unable to afford broadband access. Historically marginalized residents — low income, non-English speaking, Black, and Latino — are much more likely to be on the wrong side of the divide. The lack of reliable, updated devices also can be a barrier to using the internet even where it is available.

In creating this coalition, local organizers join a growing list of communities who are organizing to close the digital divide. Attendees of the conference will hear about some of those efforts and begin the work of designing solutions for Calhoun County.

In the short term, organizers say they will raise awareness of the need for digital inclusion efforts and align efforts across sectors. Longer term, the coalition will adopt a strategic plan to develop affordable, sustainable solutions to the digital divide.

“Our goal,” said McCullough, “is that every household, regardless of income, have broadband access and the devices necessary to utilize this technology.”

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