In 2015, the Blandin Foundation and the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development hosted the conference, "Border to Border Broadband: Better Together." It produced two significant outcomes: the formation of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition and a mission statement that, "Everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to survive and thrive in our communities and across the globe."

The coalition of counties, cities, townships, utility companies, nonprofits, telecom companies, advocacy organizations, and four state technical colleges is at the forefront of the effort to ensure that by 2026, all Minnesotans will have access to internet speeds of 100 megabits per second.

That goal, by the way, isn't just some pie-in-the-sky dream. It's a state law. Article 237.012 of Minnesota Statutes says that "no later than 2026, all Minnesota businesses and homes (will) have access to at least one provider of broadband with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second." That statute also states that by 2026 Minnesota should be ranked among the top-five states in the nation for broadband access.

We have a ways to go. Currently, Minnesota ranks 26th in broadband access - and rural access is a big part of the problem.

By rural, we're not just referring to sparsely populated parts of northern Minnesota. Anyone who lives outside the service area of a broadband provider knows what it's like to feel stuck in the 1990s every time they sit down at their computer.

Today, some 252,000 Minnesotans don't have the option of working online from home. Kids can't do research for their term papers or participate in virtual classrooms. Borrowing an ebook from a public library is almost impossible, and don't even think about trying to stream a movie on Netflix.

To address this problem, in 2017, a Gov. Mark Dayton-appointed task force on broadband recommended funding the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program in the amount of $71.48 million per biennium over the next four years. These grants would help build broadband infrastructure in underserved areas where there aren't enough customers to support private investment in such technology.

In 2018, the Minnesota Legislature allocated $15 million for border-to-border broadband. That's not $71 million, but it would have been a decent start. Unfortunately, that allocation was included in a 990-page Omnibus Supplemental Budget Bill. While Dayton supported the broadband grants, the bill contained 51 policy provisions that he opposed (call them "poison pills" if you like), so he vetoed the bill.

That should not - and indeed must not - happen this year.

Border-to-border broadband isn't a partisan issue. In its end-of-session report last year, the Minnesota Broadband Coalition specifically thanked six Republican legislators and two DFL legislators for their support. Sen. Jeremy Miller, a Republican from Winona who is now the youngest Senate president in state history, was among those whom the coalition singled out for praise.

We think that bodes very well, and we urge all legislators in Southeastern Minnesota to join Miller in a renewed effort to offer broadband access to everyone.

 

- Rochester Post-Bulletin