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Our View: Follow through on broadband pledge

Imagine if Minnesota had dragged its feet during the first half of the 20th century the way lawmakers are right now with broadband. Huge parts of the Northland and rural Minnesota very well could still be without electricity, phone service, paved roads or even indoor, ahem, facilities.

OK, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. But after more than a decade, at least three governor’s task forces and even a goal written into law to expand high-speed Internet to all corners of the state, Minnesotans’ frustration that it isn’t happening, that digital infrastructure isn’t being put into place the way other infrastructure was a century ago, can’t possibly be exaggerated.

In 2010, the Minnesota Legislature and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty made law a goal of Internet speeds statewide about fast enough for video chatting. The technology could boost business, allowing Minnesota companies to better compete globally — or at least help them keep up. It also could attract new residents eager to live near our lakes and forests while still working remotely with laptops and other devices.

But the Legislature and Pawlenty didn’t put any money behind the goal.

Then, last year, after the latest governor’s task force on broadband recommended, among other things, the creation of a $100 million fund from which competitive grants could be awarded to public-private partnerships and projects that broadened broadband’s reach, Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t allocate any funds, either. By the end of the session, however, he and lawmakers were able to scrabble together $20 million for the fund. Eighty percent less than recommended, but it was a start. And when $44 million of partnerships and proposed projects vied for the money, demand was clear.

As disappointing and pathetic as Minnesota’s follow-through on broadband was last year, this year isn’t shaping up any better. Dayton, even though he campaigned on a promise of “border-to-border broadband,” included only $30 million for broadband in his budget plan this session. House Republicans didn’t recommend any funding. And the DFL-controlled Senate Thursday committed only $17 million in its proposed budget.

So even though state law said this was the year Minnesotans from border to border were to have access to Internet speeds that much of the rest of the nation already enjoys, only 61 percent of households in nonmetro Minnesota do. That compares to 93 percent in the Twin Cities metro area.

And this was supposed to be the year devoted to rural Minnesota. Remember those declarations at the start of the legislative session? Lawmakers who made the remarks don’t seem to. Despite the overwhelming demand from businesses and individual Minnesotans to finally boost online speeds, St. Paul continues to blow it on broadband.

“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,” Sen. Matt Schmit told the News Tribune Opinion page last year. “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.

“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,” he said. “People will say it is more important because we can’t compete economically without it. We need it.”

It’s not too late. Lawmakers haven’t adjourned yet. Public demand is there. So is the money. Follow-through and political will can come next.

Read more Sunday A lack of action on one of the most critical issues for business development and job growth isn’t just disappointing; it’s unacceptable, state economic development experts write in a commentary in Sunday’s News Tribune. With a $1.9 billion budget surplus, there is simply no valid reason why Minnesota’s leaders can’t commit to making a meaningful investment in broadband, they argue. Meanwhile, Kevin R. Wald, who owns a business in Cloquet, is among state business leaders suffering the effects of St. Paul’s inaction. “To compete on the world markets, we need reliable high-speed Internet service,” he wrote in a commentary that also will be published in Sunday Opinion.