Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Funding rural broadband

It should be an opportunity for bipartisan agreement

Posted

House Republicans’ plan to slash $30 million in grants that would expand broadband Internet access to underserved areas in Minnesota will curtail rural opportunities to attract new jobs, aid emergency services and offer better online access to schools.

It’s also a surprising move after Republicans, who gained seats in rural districts in the 2014 election cycle, said taking care of rural Minnesota’s needs would be a priority this session.

Republicans complain about the high cost of installing Internet lines in low-density areas and argue for cheaper alternatives — such as wireless or satellite Internet.

It’s a legitimate point, but both wireless and satellite options face obstacles, including landscapes dotted with forests that block signals.

At the same time, just having fiber available to a community isn’t enough. Although area schools have benefitted from the Northeast Service Cooperative’s Middle Mile Fiber Project, few businesses have linked into the line. The cost of adding a spur to gain access to the line and the monthly fees to obtain the service are just too high for many of the businesses that could benefit from the service.

That’s why the program to extend high-speed Internet to rural communities needs to be reformed. In addition to providing access, the state should invest money in making high-speed Internet more affordable. That’s not as great an issue in more heavily populated communities in metro Minnesota, where a large customer base and more competition from service providers often results in lower rates.

There’s little doubt that access to high-speed Internet is essential to rural Minnesota’s economic health. Dan Dorman, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said as much in a statement he released after Republicans announced their plan to chop the broadband grants from the budget.

“In meeting with business and community leaders across the state, I hear over and over again about the dire need for better broadband in Greater Minnesota,” said Dorman. “High-speed Internet service is not a luxury. It is an absolute necessity for job and business growth.”

That message grew more urgent with the news that Minntac would be laying off 700 workers, emphasizing the need for northeastern Minnesota to diversify its economy by attracting new industry that pays wages that can support a family.

Location has often been a stumbling block in drawing new industry to the region, but that’s not an issue with Internet-based services. In addition, the colder climate up north could actually be an advantage. Big Internet-based industries generate a lot of heat on their servers and keeping them cool could be less expensive in northern Minnesota.

But just running fiber into or near communities hasn’t produced a lot of jobs. That’s because making the service easily available and affordable — a big piece of the puzzle — hasn’t been included.

At a time when the state is in better shape financially with a healthy budget surplus, now may be the time to reconsider the Border-To-Border Broadband Development Grant Program. Let’s not just make broadband available, let’s also make it affordable. That will ensure the state’s investment will pay dividends in the form of jobs and new opportunities for rural Minnesotans.

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