Our View: Relaunch chase for rural broadband
For years, we've listened in disbelief to hard-to-fathom tales of Minnesota farm kids doing their homework in cars in town outside McDonald's because there they could tap into WiFi. Or of small-town Minnesota entrepreneurs stifled by connection speeds that couldn't keep pace with the competition of international commerce.
The good news is that since 2014, the state has been investing to push high-speed internet deeper and deeper into rural Minnesota. With a belief that all Minnesotans, no matter where we live, ought to have the same access to opportunities borne of technology, the goal of the Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program has been all-in 100 percent penetration by 2022.
The better news is that since committing to rural broadband, the state's $85 million investment has resulted in "an admirable 91 (percent) penetration" with Minnesota now "a national model that other states are using to make sure they aren't left behind," as Nancy Hoffman of North Branch, Minn., chairwoman of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, wrote in an op-ed last week distributed statewide, including to the News Tribune Opinion page.
The bad news, unfortunately, is that after four straight years of welcomed broadband bills, a state appropriation last year was vetoed along with just about everything else by then-Gov. Mark Dayton. The veto was purely politics, yet another DFLers-vs.-Republicans spat that got in the way of something beneficial to Minnesotans in favor of party wants. Hoffman called it "political crossfire ... over issues not related to broadband."
"The progress needs to continue this year to make up for lost time," Hoffman wrote.
To that end, the Minnesota House passed off the floor this session a bill containing $70 million over two years, the amount the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition recommended as "exactly how much is necessary to put the program back on track," as Hoffman wrote. A Senate proposal contains $30 million. Negotiations are underway to find compromise and an appropriate level of funding that will allow Minnesota to reclaim its momentum toward border-to-border broadband.
"There is plenty of emerging talent and energy in every part of our state," Hoffman wrote. "Legislators can unleash that potential by fully funding the nationally recognized Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program."
The program's goal of 100 percent penetration may seem ambitious. But so was the similar early-1900s push to bring electricity and indoor plumbing to all of America.
And success so far has bred confidence in our state to get this done. We are so close — almost as close to the golden arches as a Minnesota farm kid has to park to finish her homework.