Legislature risks taking a step backward

Published 9:45 am Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The way this legislative session is shaping up, you’d think our State Capitol could use better broadband.

After all, communities across Minnesota have been pleading for a renewed, if not expanded, state effort toward extending high-speed Internet access. But this Legislature doesn’t appear to be receiving the message.

Matt Schmit

Matt Schmit

By now, we all know the facts: 20 percent of Minnesota homes lack wireline broadband at our modest state speed goal of 10 mbps download and 5 mbps upload. Nearly 40 percent of homes in Greater Minnesota miss the mark.

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The speed goal represents a basic threshold by which Internet users can count their connections worthy for home-based business or teleworking, distance learning or telemedicine.

The speed goal is the result of Minnesota’s first broadband task force, which nearly a decade ago unanimously recommended that all Minnesotans have basic broadband access by 2015.  Following a second active task force, nonprofit outreach, Internet service provider and cooperative engagement, countless community meetings and a groundswell of support across the state, we’ve made progress.

But at the rate we’re going, we’ll connect the final quarter of Minnesota households with high-speed Internet at a snail’s pace.

Just a year-and-a-half ago hundreds of Minnesotans turned out for our broadband listening tour.  The takeaways were clear: We have a diverse state with various providers, markets and geography; a one-size fits all approach won’t connect the state, so we need to empower local problem-solvers; and, finally, folks are tired of talking about the issue — we need action.

Unfortunately, though, we’re still doing too much talking — and the lip service is getting tiresome.

The last Legislature put a down payment on what was intended to be a sustained, significant effort to expand broadband access. Last year’s $20 million appropriation will connect over 6,000 homes, hundreds of businesses and scores of community anchor institutions — such as libraries, schools and hospitals — with high-speed Internet built for the long haul. These communities will be competitively positioned against the world’s best connected for economic opportunity and quality of life.

In round one of Minnesota’s “Border-to-Border Broadband” matching grant fund, 17 of 44 applications were awarded funding, leveraging at least $45 million in infrastructure investment.  However, many potential applicants held out for round two, where more funding was expected to be at stake. In fact, a 2014 federal inquiry of need revealed that Minnesota has over $600 million in shovel-ready projects throughout the state: more than any other state in the country.

But this Legislature isn’t taking the challenge seriously. Instead, the Senate is proposing a 15 percent cut to the matching grant program; the House proposes a 60 percent cut.  Minnesota didn’t make a big splash by allocating significant resources to its fund; after all, New York devoted $500 million to its upstate effort. Instead, we settled for building the fund slowly — but now even that approach appears in doubt.

Minnesota has a projected $2 billion budget surplus — and we’re struggling to pledge one percent of our one-time excess to an urgent one-time need. Instead of building upon last year’s momentum, this Legislature risks taking a significant step back.

Importantly, the “Border-to-Border Broadband” fund addresses a market failure — in this case, a situation where private investment capital is limited but consumer demand is strong, if not geographically concentrated.

The calling is analogous to the incredibly successful effort to extend electricity to rural America a century ago.  Can you imagine life without electricity? We could say the same thing about broadband access.

The fund is technology neutral, helping to expand wireline and wireless access depending upon local factors — such as providers, market and geography.  It targets those areas that currently lack access and are hardest to serve: the unserved and underserved as defined through a thorough and ongoing mapping process.

Finally, the fund is an economic driver.  A study commissioned by Blandin Foundation reveals a 10 to one return on investment for expanded broadband service.  What better way to bridge the divide between Greater Minnesota and the metro?

As a state, we set an important goal that all Minnesotans should have access to high-speed Internet.  We’ve measured our progress, but are coming up short.  We have a tested tool for targeting resources and improving access.  But the question remains: Will this Legislature get the message?


Matt Schmit is the state senator in District 21.