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Nonprofit group works to expand internet access

“I’m not sure I have enough data to send another message.”

That’s how a student responded when I asked if she could confirm that her parents would be picking her up after a day of hiking along the Oregon Coast. In the moment, I didn’t think much of this data scarcity; I was driving a van full of kids, so had plenty of other things on my mind. Then, as part of my job leading Passport Oregon, a nonprofit that connects kids from “under-natured” communities with Oregon’s outdoors, I saw more signs of vast inequality between the tech-haves and the tech-have-nots.

Parents of many Passport Oregon participants said some of the trip information packets were hard to read on their phone; they didn’t have a laptop to use. Kids on the bus rides from destination to destination talked about doing homework at Starbucks later that evening; they lacked speedy and reliable internet at home. Some of our partner organizations, many in fairly remote spots of Oregon, told me about the struggles of paying for internet; there was only one provider in their neck of the woods and they charged excessive rates.

Overall, I saw that a lack of internet can lead to missed opportunities, poorer communication and weaker relationships. So, when I started graduate school to pursue a masters of public policy and a law degree, I focused on what could be done to close the digital divide — to make sure all Oregonians had access to the internet, to devices and to digital literacy training.

Sadly, my studies made clear that short-term solutions weren’t available. Big investments like laying fiber cables throughout entire communities are timely and expensive. Big Tech and internet service providers don’t want to change laws that allow them to act like monopolies when it comes to connecting specific towns and cities to the Internet. Big barriers like a lack of digital literacy training in our schools and workplaces can’t be tackled overnight.

That’s why when the pandemic hit, my friends and I focused on what tangible steps we could take to make a dent in the digital divide. And, that’s when No One Left Offline (NOLO) was born.

Our mission is simple — close the digital divide, one hotspot at a time. Hotspots are relatively cheap and quality ones can connect several devices to high-speed internet. So while they may not be as comprehensive of a solution as laying fiber cables, they can immediately improve access to the internet for individuals and communities on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Given my Oregon roots and passion for making this state the best state to call home, NOLO has prioritized working with Oregonians to get hotspots in the hands of those in need of an internet connection. We’ve already partnered with local governments in Jackson County and nonprofits in Deschutes and Multnomah counties to do just that.

As we’ve continued to spread the word about the digital divide, other Oregonians have rallied behind our mission. Case in point, Umpqua Bank knows that access to the internet is essential financial security and independence in a digital age; we’ve been in conversations about how we can jointly work to provide Oregonians with the Internet required to thrive. Through those talks as well as engagement with local stakeholders, it seemed like focusing our digital divide efforts on the communities affected by the horrendous wildfires last summer could be a meaningful chance to do substantial work to close the digital divide.

As NOLO continues to explore opportunities to spread hotspots and create zones of free internet in Oregon communities, we hope to learn from and partner with cities, counties, nonprofits, small businesses and any Oregonian that shares our mission.

You may have heard that the Phoenix City Council tabled a proposal to have Umpqua and NOLO create a hotspot corridor through town. We, of course, respect the public process and remain committed to collaborating with all stakeholders to close the digital divide in ways that align the priorities of our partners. If you’d like to learn more about our work or help us tackle the digital divide, please reach out. A hotspot may not seem like much, but it can unlock a world of opportunity.

Kevin Frazier was born and raised in Washington County. He’s presently in graduate school and is executive director of No One Left Offline, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.