Minnesota has been scuffling along for years in expanding high-speed internet, especially deeper into rural areas, like so much of our Northland. The urgency has been likened to bringing electricity and indoor plumbing to farms and elsewhere in America in the early 1900s.
And never has true border-to-border broadband been as urgent or as in dire need as right now, in the midst of our unprecedented public health emergency, with hundreds of thousands of Minnesota employees and students suddenly home, learning and working remotely.
Those who can, that is. Politics too often put ahead of appropriate funding and public policy has left an estimated 14% to 17% of Minnesota households still without access to internet service or connection speeds fast enough for videoconferencing or other aspects of office and class work. The limitations have been frustratingly clear to far too many Minnesotans during this pandemic.
"Broadband is a necessary tool for residents in our region,” Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm said in a News Tribune editorial — way back in 2017. Then, the Legislature had a $900 million total funding goal, and about 22% of homes in rural areas still lacked internet connections at even basic speeds.
A year ago, in another editorial, the News Tribune reported that legislative efforts to address broadband needs had started in 2014 and that the state’s recent $85 million investment had made Minnesota "a national model that other states are using to make sure they aren't left behind," according to Nancy Hoffman of North Branch, Minn., chairwoman of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, who was quoted. Last year, the Legislature approved another $40 million in grants.
But progress has been unnecessarily stymied, too, including in 2018 when then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed pretty much everything in a move that was purely politics, yet another DFLers-vs.-Republicans spat that got in the way of meeting Minnesotans’ needs in favor of satisfying party wants.
The result is a lingering broadband shortfall being felt right now by far too many Minnesotans, frustratingly still unable to work or learn from home at a time when we all need to be home.
On the upside, as Barron’s reported this week, “The internet is doing just fine” even though “we’re all using more bandwidth for video conferences and streaming, the only things maintaining any sense of normalcy in our lives. ... The good news is that U.S. networks are handling the traffic spikes without any major hiccups.”
In Minnesota, too, “Broadband service has been holding up well overall across the state so far, despite the surge in telework,” as Minnesota Public Radio reported a week ago.
That doesn’t mean lawmakers can continue to treat Minnesota’s broadband needs as a political pawn or as something less than immediately urgent once a semblance of normalcy returns to St. Paul.
This pandemic has forced all of us to focus on basics. And if it wasn’t clear before, it is now: Reliable internet is as basic as indoor plumbing and electricity were a century ago.