The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 27, 2014

Our View: Senate should free broadband funding hostage

Why it matters: Businesses overwhelmingly agree expansion of broadband will help state's economy. The governor and House agree. But the Senate is silent

The Mankato Free Press

---- — If you’re looking for yet another disparity between the metros and outstate, look no farther than broadband Internet connections. And the push now is for the Minnesota Senate to help erase that disparity considered crucial for economic growth. So far, it has remained silent.

That’s not hyperbole. The Greater Minnesota Partnership surveyed economic development officials, non-profits, chambers of commerce, business people and lawmakers to learn how legislators and local government leaders rank the highest needs for job growth.

Broadband was the number one issue beating out job skills, infrastructure, transportation or tax issues.

The Legislature set goals to expand and improve broadband and the results to date are discouraging. In the metro area, 93 percent of household meet the goals. In outstate, only 56 percent are there, according to the Coalition of Greater MN Cities.

Even in the outstate the disparities are significant. For instance, 96 percent of the households in Waseca County meet the state’s goal speed. However, in Blue Earth County, only 19 percent meet the goals.

We’re not talking about getting higher speeds for YouTube or Facebook, proponents argue.

Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater MN Partnership, said during a news conference last week, “We heard from businesses in all parts of the state about the need for better Internet service.”

According the GMNP, Minnesota ranks only 23rd in the nation in terms of broadband service.

Even the Governor’s Broadband Task Force says the state is not on track to meet the goals by 2015 set by the Legislature.

The Coalition was seeking $100 million for broadband expansion and upgrades. Gov. Mark Dayton has indicated he supports funding but is keeping the amount close to his vest.

“I have stressed that we need to start modestly, and prove the effectiveness of [these investments]. The goal of having border-to-border cell phone and high-speed Internet coverage is something I said during the campaign. I have believed all along it is important to do.”

While far short of the goal, House Speaker Paul Thissen says the House is ready with $25 million in the House’s supplemental spending bill that would go toward Internet infrastructure. Broadband, he said, is “one of the first things that people talk about.” Thanks for listening, Mr. Speaker.

But that’s where it stops. The Senate has nothing for broadband funding and has been strangely quiet on the issue. One has to wonder if this is not just another bargaining chip for Senate Leader Tom Bakk. The senator has dragged out just about all crucial legislation this session to get his own priorities accepted, such as the new Senate Office Building, which some argue held up the minimum wage approval.

Staking out positions is nothing new in politics, except in this case the executive branch and both houses are led by the same party — the DFL. One would think there would be little need for political posturing in that situation.

Without question there is a debate — albeit a quiet one — that wonders how best to spend the money. Should it be toward increasing speeds or getting more availability to the underserved?

Working on the latter part of that debate has been the Greater Minnesota Broadband Initiative. Enventis, a member of that group, was awarded a $15 million federal grant and used $6 million of its own money to build high-capacity networks in 36 rural communities connecting healthcare facilities, schools, libraries, businesses and households.

But more needs to be done. With just two weeks left, the Legislature has time to approve funding for expansion. But it sits with the state Senate to stop using this as a personal bargaining chip and concentrate on what’s best for the economy of the state.