A reliable internet connection has never been as critical as during the past 10 months or so with COVID-19 forcing hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans to work and attend school from home, all of them accessing the web, tapping away at their keyboards, streaming content, and sending and receiving messages.
Broadband has kept us connected and has kept our economy and lives at least limping along until the pandemic can give way to a return to something resembling normalcy.
So Minnesotans can greet this news from St. Paul during these first days of legislative session with optimism: Lawmakers are working on continued funding to keep pushing internet access deeper into the state’s rural reaches and to keep improving connection speeds everywhere.
The laudable goal of true border-to-border broadband persists, not unlike the goal a century ago of electrical service in every home in the U.S.
Last year, lawmakers allocated $40 million, one of the largest investments in internet access in state history, a reflection of the urgency posed by the pandemic.
"We found out it wasn't nearly enough," Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, the broadband bill’s lead sponsor, said in an interview last fall with the News Tribune Editorial Board. “There were $79 million worth of requests for projects. So we know there's more work to do."
With funding requests only growing, Ecklund this session has introduced a $120 million state investment over two years — $60 million annually. The state’s broadband matching grants program would receive the money and use it to leverage private dollars to reach speed and connectivity goals set statewide. This week, Gov. Tim Walz's budget proposal included $50 million a year for the biennium for broadband.
“It’s a good starting point that recognizes some of the difficulties Minnesotans are facing, including a lack of broadband access, learning difficulties for students, and hardship for small businesses,” Ecklund said in a statement of the governor’s spending proposal. “The February budget forecast will give us some more clarity on what our state’s economic picture looks like. I’m optimistic that we can all work together this session to enact a balanced budget that helps us recover from COVID-19 while investing in what Minnesota workers, families, businesses, and communities need to succeed over the long haul.”
That “work together” part will be the challenge, as it almost always is with partisan-minded elected officials often digging in their heels, lest they be seen as politically weak by their voting blocs, rather than doing the hard work to benefit the state as a whole. During these dire days of public-health and economic emergency, deliberate individual commitments by lawmakers to compromise and to at least listen to others’ views are necessary.
DFLers and Minnesota Republicans alike share the challenges, including a projected $1.3 billion state budget deficit that, pre-COVID, had been a $1.5 billion surplus. Also, Republicans remain in control of the Minnesota Senate and typically support less state spending and smaller state budgets.
Even if Ecklund’s $60 million per year or Walz’s $50 million per year aren’t what wind up approved and allocated this session for broadband, an appropriate dollar figure can be negotiated. Minnesotans can be encouraged that a commitment in St. Paul to improving internet access and connection speeds remains strong on both sides of the aisle. We also can be encouraged that $7 billion has been earmarked for broadband efforts nationwide from federal COVID-19 relief funds. Minneosota certainly stands to receive its share.
“We can't leave people behind," Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said in a story in the Mankato, Minnesota, Free Press this week about broadband funding.
"We've seen school kids being told to study online that have no internet at all at their homes," Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, said in the story.
That, of course, is unacceptable. It’s on our lawmakers of all political persuasions to continue to make fixing it a priority.