Task force suggests faster broadband as some rural areas remain behind

ST. PAUL -- A Minnesota broadband task force recommends increasing state Internet speed guidelines even as many rural Minnesotans lack service at current, slower standards.A governor-appointed broadband task force suggests the state Legislature i...

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ST. PAUL - A Minnesota broadband task force recommends increasing state Internet speed guidelines even as many rural Minnesotans lack service at current, slower standards.
A governor-appointed broadband task force suggests the state Legislature increase high-speed Internet goals by 2022, which could double some speed standards, while increasing them more than four-fold by 2026. The new speeds would jive with what the Federal Communications Commission considers high-speed service.
The panel also recommended that the state up its spending to expand broadband into more rural areas to $200 million, twice what Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton recommended last month.
Most urban and suburban Minnesotans have access to high-speed Internet, but many in rural areas do not.
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said that having the Internet "isn't just nice, it's necessary if we want Minnesota's economy to work for everyone."
"If we don't do this, 244,000 Minnesotans and hundreds of communities will lack the basic infrastructure to connect to the 21st century economy, and that's not fair," Smith said.
About 20 percent of rural Minnesotans do not have Internet access that meets state standards of 10 to 20 megabits per second download speeds and five to 10 megabits per second for uploads.
The Legislature in 2014 appropriated $20 million to expand rural broadband and $10 million last year. Some estimates indicate that upwards of $3 billion is needed to bring high-speed service statewide, with that cost split among federal, state and local governments; telecommunications companies; and other entities..
The task force this week also recommended that Minnesota provide more telecommunications aid to schools and libraries.
Much of the report emphasized the need for high-speed Internet in today's world.
Deputy House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said that action is needed in this year's legislative session, set to begin March 8, after broadband funding nearly was zeroed out last year.
"Our rural hospitals, schools, businesses and residents deserve nothing less than the ability to compete in today’s global marketplace," Marquart said.
An assistant House majority leader said he wants funds for broadband, but the amount depends on how top-tier issues such as transportation and tax cuts pan out.
"I will support the best number we can get out," Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said, thinking about "the many, many asks we have on the table in front of us."
He already has introduced a bill to spend $35 million.
Included in the report is a story from 2013, which state officials say happens throughout Minnesota. When the task force visited the Alexandria library, a librarian told of a student sitting outside the library one day when it opened, using the facility's wireless Internet connection to take an online test because the student had no other broadband access.
Businesses, even in small towns, need to be connected online, the report said.
"Three years ago we started our online store; it is now half of our production," the report quoted Marie Rivers of Sven Comfort Shoes in Chisago City as saying. "With our online presence we have been able to expand our business to $3.5 million, which is incredible for such a small town.”
School students throughout rural Minnesota can use the Internet for virtual trips, the report says, to locations such as the Minnesota Zoo, Minnesota Historical Society, Great Lakes Aquarium and the International Wolf Center, "all of which provide educational opportunities students would not normally have access to due to time constraints and transportation costs."
While the task force suggests that the state spend $200 million for broadband expansion, private money also is helping.
The RS Fiber Cooperative in Renville and Sibley counties, for example, is a coalition of electric and farmer cooperatives with local government assistance that is expanding broadband in that area.
Telephone, cable television and similar companies also are investing in broadband, the report added, with more than $713 million expected to be spent this year.
Many of those companies offer help for the poorest Minnesotans to afford the Internet, but the report says that cost is the major reason that people do not sign up for high-speed Internet when it is available.

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