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Economic development panel approves bill to extend broadband internet service to hard-to-reach households

(House Photography file photo)

If you are reading this story and the page loaded quickly — and if the embedded video plays smoothly without that annoying spinning thingy — consider yourself fortunate.

About 240,000 households statewide don’t have that good fortune because they lack speedy internet access, according to the Office of Broadband Development.

Extending broadband service to these mostly rural households is going to involve “major logistical challenges,” according to Rep. Jordan Rasmusson (R-Fergus Falls).

That’s because it’s not cost-effective for broadband service providers to extend their fiber optic cables to these widely scattered residences, he said.

Rasmusson sponsors HF3605, which would establish a broadband line extension grant program to connect these underserved households to high-speed internet service.

The House Industrial Education and Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee approved the bill, as amended, 12-0 Wednesday and sent it to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee.

No additional money would be appropriated. Instead, the Broadband Grant Program in the Department of Employment and Economic Development would be directed to use up to $5 million of its budget in fiscal years 2023, 2024, and 2025 to fund projects that will connect high-speed internet to these hard-to-reach households.

Now is the time to make this effort, Rasmusson said, because the state has access to $180 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act Capital Projects Fund and $70 million in state money that was appropriated to the Office of Broadband Development last legislative session for statewide broadband development.

“Minnesota is on the cusp of unleashing an unprecedented amount of funding for broadband deployment,” he said.

The money would go to broadband providers to extend broadband service through a reverse auction process, whereby the department would select provider bids that request the least amount of financial support from the department to fund broadband line extension projects.

Grants could not exceed $25,000 per individual line extension project, Rasmusson said.

Bids to extend broadband infrastructure would need to install broadband service scalable to speeds of at least 100 megabits per second download and upload to each address in the broadband service provider’s winning bid.

“Current broadband funding programs are not scaled small enough to provide grant support to one, two, or three addresses,” said Anna Boroff, executive director of the Minnesota Cable Communications Association.

“Without this bill, we will continue to leave these residences and businesses behind,” she said.

Sen. Mark Johnson (R-East Grand Forks) sponsors the companion bill, SF3476, which awaits action by the Senate Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee.

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