Businesses, students and residents in rural Blue Earth County have a $35 million problem.
That’s the cost for connecting them to the near-future standard for broadband internet, according to a study commissioned by the County Board. Experts at Finley Engineering and CCG Consulting told the County Board Tuesday that it would cost $35 million to install 1,067 miles of fiber to connect areas of Blue Earth County excluding Mankato and larger towns like Madison Lake and Lake Crystal.
The all-fiber network would offer 100 mbps downloading and 25 mbps uploading (the approximate state standard set for 2026) but likely wouldn’t break even, the consultants said.
There’s more hope for a break-even system with a hybrid Wi-Fi/fiber system, but that would only offer 25 mbps downloads and 3 mbps uploads.
Nearly all of Blue Earth County broadband services meet that state current state standard. But only 14 percent of the county meets the more workable 100 mbps and 25 mbps standards. Experts say even small “Mom and Pop” businesses should have at least 75 mbps downloads.
Minnesota law also calls for all businesses and homes in Minnesota have access to at least one broadband provider that offers 100 mbps downloads and uploads of 20 mbps by 2026.
Blue Earth County was pursuing the study knowing the private sector is not required to create these networks. Instead, the state has been subsidizing the development at a cost of about $30 million to $40 million a year, a small fraction of what’s needed.
Minnesota Democrats have typically favored more funding with past proposals by the DFL in the area of $100 million to $200 million, while Republicans have favored less funding. Gov. Mark Dayton’s Broadband Task Force, a nonpartisan group, said in a report two years ago, that $1.4 billion would be needed to hook up everyone in the state to broadband. More recently, Gov. Tim Walz and Republicans have been agreeing on funding of about $35 million a year, still far short of needs.
The shortage of broadband creates a kind of decision with multiple bad choices: Expand millions to create networks and expect to lose money or require broadband providers to build those networks, or, of course, do nothing and leave the market to push business out of rural areas and to big cities.
In these times where rural America is being left behind, according to certain politicians, it seems there would be some kind of push to subsidize rural broadband or require some telecom and broadband providers to contribute to a development fund.
Broadband is to the 2020s what rural electricity was to the 1930s. We know rural America got its electricity. Now it needs its broadband.