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Let’s double down on what works: Border to Border Broadband Fund creates connectivity

Minnesota’s momentum in building rural broadband is now seriously at risk.

For many communities throughout Greater Minnesota and families living outside city limits, reliable internet connectivity is anything but a given.
REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Throughout Greater Minnesota and at the Capitol in St. Paul, the last few years have created a lot of buzz around broadband and expansion of high-speed internet connectivity for rural economic growth and community vitality.

State Sen. Matt Schmit
Matt Schmit

Minnesota’s nation-leading “Border to Border Broadband” competitive matching grant fund has extended the reach of high-speed internet to more than 29,000 homes and businesses, and roughly 250 community anchor institutions – such as schools, libraries, and hospitals.

When it comes to building broadband access in hard-to-reach areas, Minnesota has charted an incredibly successful course – and many others around the nation and world are taking notice.

Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of sharing Minnesota’s story with legislators in Louisiana, community and economic development officials in Colorado, economically depressed coal towns in Appalachia, and an international audience in the Netherlands. Talks in Texas; Washington, D.C.; and New York await.

But now Minnesota’s momentum in building rural broadband is seriously at risk.

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Legislators’ proposal is a big step back

Between 2014 and 2016, the state Legislature and governor committed more than $65 million to extending broadband connectivity to Minnesota homes, businesses, and community anchor institutions. Gov. Mark Dayton is calling for an additional $60 million investment for the next budget period and a nonpartisan broadband task force has proposed an additional $100 million. But the Minnesota Legislature so far is recommending as little as $7 million – a significant step back and big letdown to the dozens of communities across the state poised to improve their connectivity in 2017.

For many communities throughout Greater Minnesota and families living outside city limits, reliable internet connectivity is anything but a given. At last measure, roughly 20 percent of rural Minnesota homes and businesses lack access to broadband – defined at modest 25 Mbps (megabits per second) for download and 3 Mbps for upload speeds.

The connectivity conundrum in Minnesota and elsewhere boils down to simple market failure, where demand for broadband is significant but spread out, and the supply of provider investment dollars is limited. It’s a completely understandable situation – but it’s not a reality we have to accept.

Analogous to rural electrification a century ago

This challenge is analogous to the need for rural electrification throughout the American heartland a century ago. Imagine life today without electricity. Broadband and its many applications for economic opportunity, competitiveness, and quality of life is no different.

Minnesota has seen a tremendous amount of local energy and activity in broadband – community after community has engaged in its own evaluation and goal-setting, needs assessment and feasibility study – with the invaluable rural-minded Blandin Foundation often leading the way as convener, facilitator, or funder. One study commissioned by Blandin determined broadband investment produced a 10-to-1 return on investment.

Other organizations have joined the charge, recognizing the transformational benefit of broadband access to Greater Minnesota communities – and the deep disadvantage when it’s lacking.

Far too often over the years, though, in community after community, reality has failed to live up to vision as barriers stood in the way of progress: lack of funding or a growth-minded provider; outdated and burdensome regulation limiting local funding options; and the unfavorable economics where expensive infrastructure and disperse population meet.

Grant leverages funds

Minnesota’s competitive matching grant fund was created to address these challenges by: infusing capital into projects serving hard-to-reach homes and businesses; giving providers an opportunity to extend their return-on-investment, grow their service territories, or improve their level of service; and empowering communities with a chance to compete in the 21st century. 

In its first three years, the competitive matching grant fund has leveraged over $81 million in private and local funds to make possible 73 projects around the state – roughly half the applications received. The approach is a great example of how smart public investment partnered with private sector or service cooperative know-how can make a real difference for Minnesotans.

But at the state Legislature, the road to better broadband has been bumpy and wrought with the usual twists and turns: false equivocation, bad information, and narrow ideology.

For instance, some buy into the notion that wireless technology will make hardwire connections obsolete. To be sure, wireless access and the “internet of things” is our future. Heck, it’s our present. But for those in Greater Minnesota interested in starting a home-based business, taking advantage of flexible work schedules or telecommuting, participating in distance learning or telehealth, wireless is a great complement – not a competitor – for hardwire service such as fiber. Oftentimes, end-user applications and employers alike require the bandwidth, reliability, and affordability of hardwire connections.

Similarly, dated hardwire technologies or seemingly modern but nonetheless inadequate options such as the latest satellite-based service fall short of the bandwidth and reliability standards for distance learning, telehealth, or working from home.

And, remember, for every internet application that’s sufficiently supported by wireless or cellular technology, a hardwired fiber connection delivers the internet to the closest tower. Extending that fiber to homes and businesses removes fears of poor reliability or monthly data caps from the equation altogether.

With important projects and local initiatives waiting in the queue and increasing attention from around the country, interest in Minnesota’s broadband grant program is real and growing.

The greatest of equalizers

To date, the argument for better broadband in Minnesota has focused on (1) the imperative for ubiquitous access for all homes and businesses, (2) the benefits of widespread use in applications ranging from e-commerce and distance learning to telehealth and precision agriculture, and (3) economic growth, opportunity, and competiveness in every corner of the state.

Broadband remains the greatest of equalizers for economic opportunity, competitiveness, and quality of life in Greater Minnesota.

The 2016 Legislature recognized this fact and doubled its prior investment in Minnesota’s “Border to Border Broadband” competitive matching grant fund. Now the 2017 Legislature has a chance to build momentum around a proven approach to extending the reach of broadband, leveling the connected playing field, and promoting economic opportunity across the state.  

Matt Schmit is policy & projects director for Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy group focused on building a more inclusive prosperity for Minnesota. As a former state senator from Red Wing, he emerged as a state leader in the drive to expand rural broadband access.

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