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Funding rural broadband: A no-brainer for this legislative session

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Nick Stumo-Langer
Consider this your daily affirmation of Minnesota’s excellence: We have the best funding structure for connecting our rural areas to high quality broadband internet access. You can thank the Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program housed within the Department of Employment and Economic Development for this. The overarching goal of this program is to extend high quality and affordable internet access to all Minnesotans, especially those in unserved or underserved areas. Despite the myriad partisan battles between 2014 and now, the Minnesota Legislature has allocated $90.5 million to the program, providing a booster shot to the economy of Greater Minnesota.

Internet access is not the most provocative topic to write or think about. Neither is electricity! However, like the electrification of America during FDR’s New Deal, internet access provides the glue for all communities to operate in the 21st-century economy. This access is necessary for tasks such as students completing their homework assignments, jobs requiring applicants to submit a digital version of their materials, and farmers updating their crop yields digitally. While nearly every state across America has rural areas, few have systematically stood up to solve this complex societal issue the way Minnesota has.

Minnesota’s unique preference for local providers

Federally and across a number of states, these types of funding mechanisms tend to pour millions into the coffers of the largest internet providers in the nation, such as Comcast, Charter, and AT&T. Not true in Minnesota. The Border-to-Border program funds entities such as city and county governments, cooperative-owned entities, and small-scale providers. Each of these entities is required to provide matching funds alongside the grant, ensuring a broader commitment to the policy. These locally owned and operated internet providers are more responsive to demands on the local level and will implement their projects in the way that their communities prefer. There are also numerous studies underscoring the benefits of independent businesses versus large chains. Keeping internet providers local can double or triple the dollars invested by the state.

The time has come along for another round of funding and, with it, the opportunity to improve an already great program. The program is successful because of how it built slowly to consensus on broadband policy solutions in Minnesota, its impactful leadership by Office of Broadband Development Executive Director Danna Mackenzie, and the transparency built into the program at every step of the process. Where it can be improved lies primarily in the intersection of politics with the funding discussions and ways to ensure all parties in the political process view the importance of broadband policy issues. All that being said, there are some opportunities that lawmakers can take during session to improve this program.

Recommendation No. 1: Removing industry influence

One of the only downsides to the current composition of the grant program is the amount of influence the largest players in Minnesota’s telecommunications market have over key components of the policy. This is most evident in what is called the “challenge process” of the grant program. This process allows incumbent providers, most often the largest Internet Service Providers, to claim that they were going to build out service and prevent their competition from building in a territory that is nominally in their jurisdiction. Oftentimes, the service the build-out is inadequate or on an extremely long timetable. A simple fix could be to change the challenge process in a way that requires the provider to actually build out in the territory it is requesting in a certain amount of time. By requiring this build-out, both advocates and the industry would achieve what they wanted — more access across Greater Minnesota and a large monopoly service territory, respectively.

Another key to removing industry influence is to shift a greater amount of the money to underserved areas of Greater Minnesota. Incumbent providers would be subject to more competition, leading to better outcomes for those in Greater Minnesota. The cities dotted across these areas (such as Alexandria, Bemidji, or Grand Marais) would not suffer from the “donut hole” effect where their unserved outlying areas are connected but they do not qualify for further funding. These proposals will, no doubt, be difficult to implement given the intense lobbying presence at the state Capitol.

Recommendation No. 2: Funding

In case you missed it, and golly I don’t know how you could have, Minnesota’s House of Representatives changed hands and the DFL made a clean sweep of the state’s constitutional officers. That’s a lot of folks who need education around the benefits of robust broadband policy in Greater Minnesota.

This recommendation revolves around the funding stream and security for it long-term. A more consistent funding stream that is not subject to every shift of the political winds is crucial for improving the efficacy of the program. A few options could help secure funding for this program.

Minnesota could use the revenue generated by the internet sales tax ruling in the Supreme Court case Wayfair, Inc. vs, South Dakota (2018). Another option could be delivering a one-time infusion of cash from the budget surplus to connect nearly everyone across Greater Minnesota. What is most feasible, however, would be to request a substantial sum and authorize the funding for the program across a number of years. A five- or six-year window of funding at, for example, $50 million annually would enable Internet Service Providers to plan for grant applications years in advance. This more dedicated funding stream would also contribute to better outcomes for underserved areas that do not currently have adequate internet service.

The Minnesota Legislature and governor’s office are in a unique position to influence outcomes for those in Greater Minnesota for multiple generations; they must take advantage of it.

Nick Stumo-Langer is a Master of Public Policy student in the Humphrey School for Public Affairs. He previously was the communications director for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. His interests in policy and politics revolves around the level of monopoly power in our political economy and the ways that local governments can find innovative policy solutions to combat this reality.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by N. Coleman on 01/28/2019 - 10:25 am.

    The real costs of broadband infrastructure do not match up with these grants. Rural MN towns are such low density that it would cost around $17K to bring fiber broadband to a single household. The $90M grant would only provide enough funds to wire up a single town the size of Brainerd.

    Unfortunately, every rural broadband grant scheme seems like a feel good gesture at best, and a grift at worst.

    • Submitted by James Miller on 01/29/2019 - 10:07 am.

      Internet connectivity needs to be packaged similarly to basic utilities like water, gas and electricity. It’s become the primary method of communication and information and for better and worse, has supplanted the local library as a research conduit. It should be funded accordingly. Yes, it costs money, yes it will be an additional tax burden, and it will help to level the playing field between those who have access to information and those who cannot afford high-speed service.

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