This legislative session, I worked with a broad coalition of local governments, businesses, civic groups, internet service providers, and other stakeholders to close gaps in high-speed broadband coverage across Minnesota. Once COVID-19 emerged and many families and businesses had to instantly adapt to a new way of life, these gaps instantly became deep chasms. Legislative attention to protect Minnesotans’ health and safety was critically important, but so too are investments in Minnesotans’ ability to succeed and thrive economically. One of these pieces is a robust package of broadband investments.
Before COVID-19, many students had to head to the public library, a restaurant, or a coffee shop to connect to the internet to complete homework assignments. This is unacceptable in its own right. But Since COVID-19 and the transition to distance learning, these same students’ entire classrooms become virtual, leaving them at risk of falling behind.
COVID-19 also changed health care, with symptomatic individuals asked not to visit a clinic; the use of telemedicine services became encouraged instead to an unprecedented degree.
The legislation I championed would help expand broadband access to more folks who have no internet access (unserved) and to those who have woefully inadequate access (underserved). Once COVID-19 hit, I refocused my broadband-development bill on removing some of the specific barriers Minnesotans without decent internet access are suddenly facing, splitting it into three separate targeted areas.
First, the bill would invest an additional $10 million toward our state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. Since 2014, this proven program has leveraged private dollars to expand access to more than 49,900 homes and businesses.
The bill also would create a new Distance Learning Broadband Access Grant Program — with a $15 million investment — to reimburse school districts for costs related to providing students with the equipment necessary to access learning materials on the internet during our peacetime emergency.
Finally, the bill would create the Telemedicine Equipment Reimbursement Grant Program, funded at $2 million, to reimburse health care providers and counties that purchase and install telemedicine equipment to provide COVID-19-related health care services.
Unfortunately, the legislative session adjourned without an agreement on broadband funding and many other key solutions to help our economy recover. To get this done, it will take lawmakers of both parties recognizing that every single Minnesota student, entrepreneur, doctor, teacher, farmer, and family deserves the opportunities that come with baseline, 21st-century technology, including internet access. It will also take a recognition that private dollars alone won’t do the trick; the upfront infrastructure costs are simply too great.
Yes, this will take a significant public investment, but so too did rural electrification, and we can’t imagine how life would be without that initiative.
Our reliance on the internet will only continue to grow and will become an even bigger part of commerce, education, and health care. Our state has a lofty goal of universal access by 2022, and I’ll keep working to ensure more Minnesotans can have the benefits and tools that come with internet access.
When first elected to the Legislature, I never imagined technology issues would be among my top legislative priorities. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to explain what a megabit is. What is a 29-year union paper mill worker doing advocating for broadband? I’m doing so because our rural communities desperately need the enhanced way of life that comes with reliable internet access. While I don’t spend too much time on the computer, when my wife Joan and I try to go on the internet at the same time from different devices, the connection becomes unusable. I know we’re not alone with this experience.
When we discuss broadband investments at the state Capitol, it’s often through a lens of economic growth, serving as a conduit to create and attract new types of opportunities within a region. This is largely true but doesn’t tell the whole story. Reliable internet access is something that all Minnesotans deserve to connect with commerce, connect with learning, connect with their doctor, and perhaps most importantly connect with one another.
It’s time for lawmakers to move forward with robust broadband development investments, not just to meet our current needs under a pandemic but to help our whole state reach its long-term potential.
Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, represents District 3A in the Minnesota House and is chief author of legislation to invest in broadband development. He wrote this at the request of the News Tribune Opinion page.