Editorial: State, region still lagging in broadband access

Published 10:07 pm Wednesday, July 5, 2017

If broadband access is the fuel that can power rural and outstate economic development, Minnesota is in need of a fill up.

For the last two budget cycles, Gov. Mark Dayton and Democrats have pushed to add from $60 million to $100 million to the state’s broadband grant program, and the Legislature has grudgingly provided $20 million. In the last round of funding, the funding requests were double the total amount of funding available.

Clearly, outstate Minnesota still needs broadband infrastructure. Some 22 percent of rural households in Minnesota, about 202,000, don’t have access to typical broadband, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

This leads people like Casey Jelinski, an entrepreneur who used to live in Aitkin County, to move to De Pere, Wis., where the broadband was better. Her story was detailed in a Star Tribune report that noted she used to drive 60 miles to Duluth to get good broadband coverage.

Other such cases happen across Minnesota. Some 73 percent of the households lack typical broadband in Aitkin County, the worst coverage in the state.

In the Mankato region, broadband coverage is worst in Martin and Sibley counties, with about 45 percent of households without broadband coverage. Some 30 to 40 percent of households in Watonwan and Waseca County have no access to typical broadband. Even in more populous Blue Earth and Nicollet counties about 20 to 25 percent of households are without broadband.

Broadband internet has become critical business infrastructure like electricity was in the early days of the Republic. But bringing broadband to rural areas is costly. Hence the need for government subsidy for this investment that returns dividends in jobs and economic development.

Since 2014, Minnesota has invested $66 million in its broadband grant program. That has served some 25,949 households, 3,176 businesses and 244 community institution like schools, libraries and hospitals.

The Republican Party campaigned in the last election how outstate Minnesota was left behind and the Twin Cities was somehow the recipient of the state’s largesse. But the GOP Legislature had a chance to put its funding where its campaign rhetoric was and came up short on broadband.

As the demand for the dollars shows, we need to do more. We urge the Legislature, and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, to up their commitment to outstate Minnesota and expand broadband program funding.

— Mankato Free Press, July 1

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