Bill could help bring more broadband funding for Albert Lea

Published 9:00 am Sunday, April 3, 2016

Leaders in communities like Albert Lea and Austin are calling on state leaders to alter statutes and grant requirements to open up more access to funding for broadband, which they said will be a key economic development driver now and into the future.

District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, introduced a bill late last week that would make sure cities like Austin and Albert Lea are eligible to receive current and proposed broadband funds after many existing grants and some initial bills this session limited the cities that would qualify.

“We also want to make sure that cities like Austin or Albert Lea qualify,” Sparks said.

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At issue is the state’s Border-to-Border broadband grants and some state statutes in regards to access to broadband funding across the state.

Currently, many of the funding sources target unserved communities but not underserved communities. Austin City Administrator Craig Clark spoke in March at a legislative meeting in the Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, which Sparks chairs, about the importance of making broadband funding available to more communities.

Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed using $100 million — about 20 percent of his supplemental budget — toward expanding broadband coverage around the state.

While Clark is happy state leaders are looking to expand broadband across the state, he argued the focus on unserved communities versus underserved communities leaves many Greater Minnesota cities by the wayside.

Clark argued broadband is necessary to promote development in communities closer to Austin and Albert Lea’s size.

“Economic development is going to happen in larger communities like Austin, so if we believe that broadband is an economic development necessity, that’s largely king to happen in our larger communities and the state should give focus to that as far as our criteria is conceded,” Clark said.

Broadband access is seen as a vital incentive for communities when it comes to attracting, retaining and growing business.

Clark said he wanted to plant the seed with lawmakers that they need to focus on economic development and the promise broadband can offer communities like Austin.

“What I wanted to implore on them was don’t miss this opportunity to get this right,” he said.

However, there was some controversy about broadband discussions last week. The Greater Coalition of Minnesota of Cities found that no community with a population over 3,300 qualifies for Border-to-Border funds under the current state criteria. In fact, the coalition found only 1.7 percent of Minnesota city residents are eligible.

The concern is that this could create a “donut hole effect” where rural areas receive broadband in some counties, while cities are left out. This happened in Lac qui Parle County, where the county seat of Madison has poorer service than the surround rural areas, according to the coalition.

Clark compared extending broadband to the historical extension of rural electricity, noting that electricity first extended to larger cities before rural residents and small cities.

“We should probably look at doing the same with broadband,” Clark said.

However, Dayton’s office issued a memo arguing the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities has spread misinformation on broadband.

“Rural Minnesota cities are being served by the program as it was designed,” the memo reads.

Still, Clark and other s argued growing the broadband infrastructure would be a good business retention and attraction tool for the community. It would also help existing businesses work optimally and more efficiently.

As this legislative session moves forward, Sparks said he’s focused on making sure communities like Austin and Albert Lea qualify for existing funds and for newer bills being discussed this session.

With a competitive business climate in Minnesota and the Midwest, Sparks said broadband access is vital for business.

“I think it’s huge,” he said.

He also noted it’s vital for education too, as some students have access to high-speed Internet at school but it’s not available to them at home.

“It’s becoming more like a utility, almost a necessity as far as I’m concerned,” Sparks said.

Clark echoed that sentiment, noting that Internet needs are constantly fluctuating and growing, and he’s noted he’s heard of some businesses experience problems or hiccups in their access. The need is only going to grow, Clark noted.

“You see (on) the horizon, this is the way business is being, this is the way we live our lives, for better or worse,” Clark said. “That dependence on broadband is only growing. Some of it we also need to get sort of ahead of the curve so it’s not a major problem down the road.”

Another concern is speeds. While Dayton’s task force recommended setting goals at 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 mbps for uploads by 2020, the Greater Coalition of Minnesota Cities has argued that may not be enough to fix concerns.


Gig Austin still moving ahead

In Austin, most broadband efforts would likely go through Gig Austin, a nonprofit effort through Vision 2020’s Community Wide Technology Committee aiming to bring high-speed Internet and massive amounts of data to the city through a gigabit-level network.

Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur, a member of the Gig Austin committee, said the committee has been meeting with potential partners in recent months, like the city, county and Austin Public Schools along with Vision 2020’s Business Friendly and Education Leaders committees to gauge interest in future partnerships.

While Austin, Mower County and school district leaders haven’t yet pledged any money toward Gig Austin, Nibaur said they’ve provided feedback and showed the potential for future partnerships.

After gathering more input and after further discussions, Nibaur said the committee could go to the Hormel Foundation again and determine a next step.