Lawmakers appear ready to spend more state funding than ever to expand Minnesota’s broadband internet, but questions remain over how best to use that money.
GOP and DFL senators presented largely similar proposals before a Senate agricultural policy committee Wednesday that would call for $120 to $150 million spent over the next two years on broadband projects, with at least $30 million to $50 million going toward projects in unserved or underserved communities. That amount is largely in line with a House DFL broadband proposal made earlier this year.
“I think we all can agree it is very important that we give every citizen in the state an opportunity to hook up to some kind of higher speed of internet,” said Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake.
Draheim is calling for $50 million in grants to be spent in unserved or underserved areas throughout the state over the next two years. He’d also like the state to update its broadband service maps to differentiate between wired and wireless technology connections, as well as mandate state officials to conduct on-the-ground tests of broadband speeds throughout Minnesota.
Draheim also proposes the money he requests to be used in areas not now served by federal funding, which caused mixed reactions among broadband advocates, industry experts and state officials.
Critics point out some federal grant programs come with matching fund requirements for communities and internet service providers, which state money can help address. In addition, some federal programs don’t meet Minnesota’s broadband speed goals of 25 megabits per second downloads and 3 mbps uploads by 2022, as well as 100 mbps downloads by 20 mpbs uploads by 2026.
“While several federal programs have requirements at 25 and 3, others have broadband requirements for 10 and 1 or 4 and 1,” said Brent Christensen, president and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance.
Yet advocates almost universally agree with Draheim’s goal to use funding as efficiently as possible to connect more Minnesota households to high-speed internet. Anna Boroff, the executive director of the Minnesota Cable Communications Association, said the organization supports Draheim’s language as it allows more internet service providers access to funding for community projects rather than stacking the deck for certain projects while leaving other providers out of consideration.
“The idea is right,” she said. “Paying twice in the same areas while leaving other communities with nothing does not make sense.”
It remains to be seen just how much money House and Senate leaders are willing to commit to broadband this year. Minnesota is set to receive $300 million in federal broadband grants from the COVID-relief package Congress passed in December, which leaders say will likely factor into their budget decisions.
About $408 million from the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is going to broadband projects across the state over the next 10 years to hook up about 142,000 of Minnesota’s unserved households. The state has about 157,000 unserved or underserved households that don’t meet the 2022 broadband speed goals, and about 256,000 households that don’t meet the 2026 broadband goals.
It’s unclear how quickly many of those projects can get started, however, and some may require state funding to push them to completion. Some providers and broadband experts have expressed concerns over whether certain projects funded through the Opportunity Fund will actually come to fruition.
One company, Nevada-based LTD Broadband, received about $312 million for broadband projects across the state. Yet experts say LTD Broadband is ill-equipped to tackle so many projects at once and may not pass federal requirements to get their projects going, leading some local officials and businesses to ask the state to fund broadband proposals in areas where LTD projects are set to start.
Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, said he was “very encouraged” by the broadband funding proposals. “It seems like both parties agree on how critical this particular infrastructure is to Greater Minnesota.”
Yet Frentz and other lawmakers are feeling pressure to do something quickly about broadband funding. Frentz said he still hears complaints from Watonwan County residents who have to drive their children miles away to a restaurant parking lot to do their homework online.
Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, said he was surprised to learn 80% of students in the northern Minnesota school district where he lives, St. Louis County Schools, had internet speeds at home that didn’t meet state broadband goals this past school year.
“That is a massive problem and I suspect much of rural Minnesota looks like that,” Bakk said.