MISSOULA – In a groundbreaking effort to bridge the digital divide across Big Sky Country, the University of Montana has earned a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to plan how to boost digital network connections with its tribal college partners.
UM’s Chief Information Officer Zach Rossmiller will oversee the grant, which he said will revolutionize digital access for Montana’s tribal colleges and universities.
“Digital equity, the cornerstone of this transformative initiative, strives to ensure that every individual, regardless of their geographical location, enjoys equal access to online resources,” Rossmiller said. “In today’s increasingly interconnected world, high-speed network connections are paramount for academic programs, research endeavors, collaboration opportunities and remote learning.”
He said a high level of digital access is not universally available with UM’s tribal college and university partners, “and it’s imperative that we address and rectify this issue.”
Montana's digital equity gap is characterized by stark disparities in internet access and connectivity. Rossmiller said that while urban areas may benefit from robust infrastructure, many rural and tribal communities in the state still grapple with limited internet access, hindering their ability to participate in the digital age effectively.
“This digital divide disproportionately affects students, researchers and community members in these underserved regions,” he said, “limiting their access to educational opportunities, job prospects and vital online resources.”
Dr. Karla Bird, UM’s tribal outreach specialist, underscores the pressing need for infrastructure improvements. Located in rural communities, Montana’s tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) offer quality academic degree programs, conduct pioneering research and enhance workforce opportunities.
“Improving internet connections not only strengthens TCU’s ability to continue this vital work but also expands their potential for academic and scientific collaboration and enables them to better serve their communities,” Bird said.
The NSF planning grant is called “CC* CIRA: ICARE+: Addressing Montana’s Digital Equity Gap.” It will fund a collaborative effort that brings together a skilled team of IT professionals and researchers from UM, TCUs and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
Their mission: to comprehensively assess the cyberinfrastructure requirements unique to each Montana TCU. The culmination of their findings will be presented at an upcoming “Bridge the Digital Equity Gap” workshop, attended by key representatives from the Montana University System, Internet2 officials and other infrastructure experts. The workshop’s objective is to blueprint a networking infrastructure that guarantees robust, high-speed and sustainable connections at every TCU site.
“The ultimate result of this collective endeavor will be a meticulously crafted plan, leveraged to secure additional funding dedicated to closing Montana's digital equity gap,” Rossmiller said.
UM’s receipt of this NSF grant signals a transformative step towards achieving digital equity, fostering educational access and bolstering research and collaboration opportunities for TCUs across Montana, Bird said.