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Guest Column: Want broadband? Work with cooperatives

Guest Column by Darrick Moe

The COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges in the past year, including forcing school districts and business owners to figure out how to conduct operations on virtual platforms. That problem is exasperated in rural areas of the state that don’t have high-speed internet access.

Darrick Moe

Surprisingly, even a full year after the pandemic’s onset, 440,000 Minnesotans still do not have access to a wired broadband connection with 25 Mbps or faster speeds. Another 125,000 do not have any wired internet providers with services available at their place of residence, according to the organization BroadbandNow.

Just like water and electricity, broadband has quickly emerged as an essential service, and border-to-border broadband access is a state priority.

Historically, when large companies win state and federal grants to expand broadband access, they often cherry-pick a path serving larger population centers to enhance profits. This approach, while beneficial for investors, results in islands of unserved and underserved communities that become even more difficult and expensive to reach. Without a financial incentive to serve the smaller and more rural areas, they are bypassed time and time again for larger, more profitable service areas. 

In the 1930s, a similar situation unfolded in rural Minnesota. For-profit utilities had the opportunity to bring electricity to rural communities, but many of those companies chose not to build power lines in the areas. Fast forward 90 years, and profitability is now preventing deployment of broadband in rural communities.

With a primary mission of serving the needs of the communities they serve, not-for-profit electric cooperatives came to the rescue for rural America by stringing power lines in smaller, less populated areas. Today, electric co-ops can be an asset in making broadband accessible to all Minnesotans.

Unlike any for-profit business or governmental entity, electric cooperatives already have the critical infrastructure in place that is needed to bring broadband to every corner of the state. Minnesota’s 44 distribution cooperatives serve 1.7 million Minnesotans in all 87 counties and operate the largest distribution network in the state with more than 135,000 miles of electric lines.

Minnesota’s electric cooperatives can be part of the solution to bridge the digital divide. The cooperative business model, existing infrastructure and proven history make electric co-ops natural champions for deploying broadband to rural America. However, there is a legal challenge that must be addressed first.

Currently, if an electric co-op wants to deploy broadband or partner with a telecommunications company to deploy broadband, they must first get a newly signed easement agreement from every landowner that gives the co-op express permission to use the easement for broadband purposes. However, obtaining new easements is an extremely time-intensive and expensive task.

To address this legal challenge, the Minnesota Rural Electric Association has worked with state legislators to draft HF 686/SF 1304. This bill would allow co-ops to use their current electric service easements to also deploy broadband, providing they give easement holders six months’ notice in a bill insert or via first-class mail and recognize a landowner’s right to commence legal action or seek damages for a fair market decrease in property value.

This legislative bill supports Governor Walz’s initiatives to develop strategies to unlock the benefits of universal access to broadband for all communities in Minnesota while supporting inclusion, equity and children’s initiatives. High-speed internet services are essential to community development, economic growth and prosperity, and educational attainment across the state. 

State legislatures in at least 18 states have ushered in better rural connectivity by passing new laws that enable electric cooperatives to expand high-quality internet access. It’s time for Minnesota to join this group of progressive leaders by helping to bring high-speed broadband access to unconnected rural communities.

Deploying broadband is a significant financial investment and often requires several organizations to collaborate on bringing solutions to impacted areas. While it may not be financially prudent for every electric cooperative to participate in deploying broadband, passage of this bill will provide Minnesota with another tool to bridge the digital divide.

Darrick Moe is the president and CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, a nonprofit trade association serving Minnesota’s electric cooperatives.