REGIONAL—Minnesota’s Commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, or DEED, urged lawmakers this week to reinstate the Border-to-Border grant program for rural broadband. …
REGIONAL—Minnesota’s Commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, or DEED, urged lawmakers this week to reinstate the Border-to-Border grant program for rural broadband. At a press conference on Wednesday, Commissioner Steve Grove said legislation currently in the works would put $70 million into the program with $35 million being available in both 2020 and 2021.
That legislation is being sponsored by District 3A Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls.
Ecklund said an additional $15 million in unused funds from last year’s budget could be added to the new dollars, helping to further boost funding for rural projects.
“The governor cares deeply about this,” Grove said. “The model should be that you don’t need to live in the metro to take part in the global economy.”
The commissioner said rural projects don’t always have as much appeal for private companies because sparser population tends to increase the cost of bringing broadband speeds to customers. Broadband speeds in Minnesota are defined as 25 megabytes per seconds (mbps) for download speed and 2 mbps upload speed.
According to Grove about 87 percent of Minnesota residents have access to these speeds, but the state is pushing for a further increase of 100 mbps download and 20 mbps upload by 2026.
How the grant money will be dispersed will be determined by a number of factors, including a company’s 10-year build-out plan.
Danna Mackenzie, the Director of the Office of Broadband Development, said residents should be contacting their Internet service providers to let them know if they want broadband. She said people who want better Internet service, but feel their local provider is not responding adequately, can call 651-259-7610.
Mackenzie said the state has not looked at the ramifications of the Frontier investigation on how grant monies might be allocated to companies under investigation from the state. She did say, however, that Frontier was on track to complete projects being paid for through state grant money.
As of right now, Mackenzie said, the rules governing how grant money is awarded to Internet companies will not be changing.
Grove said DEED is also looking to lobby lawmakers to bring grant programs for small startup companies, including tax incentives for angel investors, to put money into rural startups.
He said there is broad support at the Capitol for the programs.
“Generally, the reception has been really good from lawmakers,” he said. “This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s about connecting citizens to the global economy.”
Ecklund agreed, noting that the state may not be able to rely on the major telecommunications companies, like Frontier or CenturyLink, to make the investments necessary to improve service in rural areas. He said he’s been talking to township officials in parts of his district about forming cooperative ventures using joint powers as a way to attract more customers. “Then it makes it easier to get local companies or cooperatives, like Paul Bunyan or others, to come in and provide service,” he said. Just as rural electrification was accomplished mostly through the use of cooperatives, Ecklund said the same model might work for extending broadband.