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Our view: Need for broadband Internet access is great, and the money is there

(Milt Priggee / Cagle Cartoons)

Forgive Sen. Matt Schmit for getting a bit, shall we say, high-spirited, when the topic is the desperate need to expand high-speed Internet deeper into rural Minnesota, including much of the Northland.

The first-term lawmaker from Red Wing, Minn., hit 16 small towns this past winter and pored through more than 450 emails. On some of the most frigid nights and during one of our snowiest, coldest winters ever, he heard the stories — dozens of them at a time, hundreds of them in total — about businesses that can’t compete and about would-be Minnesotans who can’t come here because they can’t telecommute for work. No one was asking for extravagance, just the ability to live and work where they want, outside of big cities, while still being able to survive economically amid 21st-

century realities.

“This is vital infrastructure. I think we’ve got to find a way to make sure that all communities in Minnesota (and) all households and businesses have access,” Sen. Schmit said in an interview this month with the News Tribune Opinion page. “Darn it, we were able to step up and get electricity to all rural homes. We were able to provide telephone service to all rural homes. Broadband is just as important. … People will say it is more important because we can’t compete economically without it. We need it.”

Minnesota has recognized that need for years. But the state never has been better positioned than it is right now to finally do something about it. The public will is there. So is the money.

In the past decade at least three governor’s task forces have taken on the challenge. In 2010, lawmakers and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty took seriously what they were finding and made law a goal of Internet speeds of at least 10 to 20 mbps for downloads and 5 to 10 mbps for uploads statewide by 2015. Though no money was put behind the legislation, the number of Minnesota households with access to such speeds — about fast enough for video chatting — grew

18 percent by 2013, mostly in urban areas.

Still, at least half of Minnesota’s households, especially in rural areas and small towns, lack affordable access to the faster speeds. Minnesota ranks a disappointingly average 23rd in broadband availability.

“The question is, are we serious about those goals? Are we serious about being in the top five in connected households and businesses, (which) is also in statute? We’re falling short,” Schmit said. “We have to have some additional capital infused into the communities that are underserved currently.”

The latest governor’s task force on broadband released its findings in January. It recommended, among other things, the creation of a $100 million fund from which competitive grants could be awarded to public-private partnerships working to expand high-speed broadband to the far reaches of the state. In rural areas and small towns, too few customers leave private Internet providers reluctant and unable to go it alone. At the same time, the state shouldn’t be expected to foot the entire bill. Private-public partnerships show promise.

But getting that

$100 million fund created doesn’t. While his campaign promises in 2010 included “border-to-border broadband,” Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t include the allocation — or any allocation for broadband — in his spending recommendations to the Legislature this year. That’s even though the state is in good financial shape with a

$1.2 billion budget surplus, the first time in at least 15 years Minnesota has forecasted a surplus in both the current biennium and the next one. Ignoring the centerpiece recommendation of the experts on his own task force, the governor said there weren’t specific enough ideas for how the $100 million would be used and spent.

Sen. Schmit, who authored legislation for the $100 million this session, disagreed. And he’s far from alone.

“We need to try to leverage any resources we can. This is that important,” Schmit said. “This isn’t just a matter of spending this money; this is a matter of saying, ‘You know, we’ve got a surplus, we’ve got a huge need, and this is the time to do something about it. I think it’s an appropriate use of that funding. … Folks are sick and tired of talking about it. They want to act. And we’ve had community after community working on this for years.”

At least 50 Minnesota communities have attempted to leverage federal money on their own.

And while Minnesota hems and haws and then doesn’t do anything, at least 15 other states are taking action to expand broadband. They’re poised to leave Minnesota behind in the global competition for industry, jobs and prosperity. We can’t let that happen.

No one disagrees

$100 million is a lot of money and a major investment, surplus or no surplus. But a Blandin Foundation study found that the return on that investment would to be 10:1. So $100 million now means $1 billion for Minnesota’s future — and a major step toward the $3.2 billion the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband said would be needed in total.

Investing wisely for the future clearly was a goal of Minnesota’s pioneers when they made sure every corner of the state had electricity and then telephone service. Broadband demands to happen next. Rarely has the state been in a better position to embrace it.

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