A year in, and we shop online, work online, go to school online, and even play online. Our clear need — no longer just a nicety or luxury — for fast, reliable internet service, even in the far reaches of wooded, rural northern Minnesota, has grown out of necessity.
No wonder it’s a lobbying priority for the city of Duluth at the Minnesota Capitol this year. And no wonder there are proposals in both St. Paul and in Washington, D.C., to meet our growing broadband demand. Even after COVID-19, a public investment now in its infrastructure, much like the electrification of America a century ago, will be deemed a worthwhile necessity and will be embraced and appreciated as a new normal.
The pandemic has “put an exclamation point” on the need for all Minnesotans and all Americans — of all income levels and in all areas — to be able to be productively online, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in an interview last week with Forum News Service.
“It’s not just nice to be able to email your grandma or watch a movie,” Klobuchar said. “For kids that are learning (online), 10% to 15% of them … weren’t even able to see their teacher on Zoom. They were forced to use pencil and paper and tune into an entire day of class on the telephone.”
To address this shortcoming, Klobuchar is co-proposing a $94 billion federal investment to expand broadband infrastructure, particularly in underserved communities and places without any connection access at all. The investment will help “close the internet divide,” she said.
“If you’re going to have a thriving economy in rural Minnesota or rural North Dakota, you are not going to be able to do it unless you have high speed internet,” Klobuchar said in the story published in the News Tribune. “Everyone should have that same access regardless of their county or their zip code.”
A similar attitude seems to have taken hold in the Minnesota state Capitol.
In January, $20.6 million in broadband-improving grants were announced by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development: just the latest annual allocation. Gov. Tim Walz this year pitched a one-year broadband investment of $50 million. Lawmakers are considering as much as $120 million over two years when, typically, the state has allocated a far more reserved $20 million to $30 million annually.
The state’s goal of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds border to border by 2022 has been met now in 92.47% of the state. A new goal of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds can be embraced. The pandemic certainly has shown the need for more speed.
Broadband has kept us connected and has kept our economy and lives at least limping along in this pandemic, until we are able to give way to a return to something resembling normalcy. Continued and appropriate public investments are clearly needed in both St. Paul and D.C. Even cities and counties can look for opportunities to bolster local connections with their millions on the way in federal COVID-19 relief.
Encouragingly, lawmakers and others already are stepping up. And, in a welcome rarity, they are doing so in a bipartisan way.