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Broadband internet access expanding statewide, but officials say many rural areas still underserved

State officials told a House committee Feb. 2 that 88.5% of households statewide have access to high-speed broadband internet service — but that percentage drops to 75% in Greater Minnesota. (Graphic courtesy Minnesota DEED)

Speedy and stable internet connections allow students to learn remotely, patients to visit with doctors using telemedicine, and commerce to continue.

That technology is critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During these extraordinary times, the need for digital equity and high-speed internet access for all Minnesotans has never been more apparent,” said Angie Dickison, executive director of the Office of Broadband Development in the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

In a presentation to the House Industrial Education and Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee Wednesday, she noted that not all parts of the state have equal access to high-speed broadband internet connections, making coping with the pandemic more difficult.

Dickison reported that 88.5% of households statewide have access to high-speed broadband internet  service, defined as at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds, but that percentage drops to 75% in Greater Minnesota.

A total of 240,000 households statewide lack speedy access to the internet and extending broadband service to these households is especially problematic, Dickison said. They are primarily in sparsely populated areas, and thus require intensive infrastructure development and the associated high costs of labor.

Dickison estimates it would cost more than $1.3 billion to achieve complete statewide broadband coverage.

 

Finding the money for broadband expansion

Funds in the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, established by the Legislature in 2014, are used primarily for grants to acquire and install middle- and last-mile infrastructure for high-speed broadband internet service in unserved and underserved areas.

Grants to Minnesota communities can pay up to 50% of the broadband development costs for a qualifying project.

In his supplemental budget, Gov. Tim Walz has proposed $170 million be targeted to extending broadband access in underserved areas in the state.

During the 2021 legislative session, the Legislature appropriated $70 million from the federal Capital Projects Fund to be used for Border-to-Border Broadband grants.

Dickison said her office expects to get approval of the federal grant plan from the U.S. Department of the Treasury this month, and if that happens, the office would launch two grant rounds in 2022 to distribute the $70 million.

However, no money for the grants was appropriated from the state’s General Fund last year. HF14 would appropriate $120 million in the 2022-23 biennium for broadband grants.

It was adopted by the industrial education committee last session, but was not acted upon by the House Ways and Means Committee. However, Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr. (DFL-Winona), the committee chair, plans to work with Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls), who sponsors HF14, to pass the bill this year.

The companion, SF22, sponsored by Sen. Tom Bakk (I-Cook), awaits action by the Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy Committee.


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