It’s troubling to see broadband funding stuck in legislative neutral as the pandemic has created a critical need for strong and widespread internet connections in Minnesota’s rural areas.
The GOP-led Minnesota Senate was doing its part when it passed a $27 million broadband bill in the June special session. The bill has not been introduced in the DFL-led House, and the reasons seem vague. The money would come out of the federal CARES Act funds and Gov. Tim Walz is said to be weighing the broadband funding against other needs.
We would argue broadband funding to expand coverage in the short-term and long-term should be a priority. Thousands of Minnesota workers and students now work from home and broadband has become as necessary as electricity.
While broadband coverage has slowly been coming up to state standards in rural areas, there remain large parts of area counties that aren’t up to snuff.
Blue Earth, Brown, Nicollet, Le Sueur, Martin and Waseca counties have between 13 percent and 17 percent of households without broadband that meets the state standards of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Watonwan County (which has a large Hispanic population) has 20 percent without. Faribault County is the best with only 8 percent without high speed broadband.
These percentages of internet darkness are unconscionable for a modern society. And Democrats and Republicans need to step up and fill the gaps, which are not a problem in metro areas. Perhaps rural DFL lawmakers can get their metro brethren to see the darkness.
Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, has argued for spending money on things like hotspots and other less expensive internet technology to get people wired up more quickly. That argument has merit and should be part of a bipartisan solution.
While Democrats and Republicans have mostly been in agreement on funding $20 million or sometimes more per year on building out broadband infrastructure in the rural areas, those projects take time. The pandemic needs are more immediate.
With the state getting $2.2 billion in federal CARES money, it seems $27 million injection of funds for broadband would be reasonable. The federal money also must be spent by the end of the year, so there’s some urgency.
We urge the Legislature to pass bipartisan broadband funding in the upcoming special session. The plan doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be done now.