Broadband a growing issue in legislature

Published 10:17 am Monday, March 9, 2015

Rural Minnesota cities are pushing for more broadband Internet funding this legislative session and local lawmakers are all for the idea.

Ever since state officials announced a $1.87 billion surplus in the state budget, lawmakers and special interest groups have looked to see where that money could be spent.

Lobbyists with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities pushed again last month for the state to expand its funding to the Office of Broadband, which local lawmakers say could happen this session.

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“It is an important economic tool,” said Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin.

Sparks, who heads the jobs, agriculture and rural development committee, said he believes lawmakers could expand broadband funding this session after Gov. Mark Dayton proposed $30 million in funding for broadband grants to cities, up from the $20 million given last year.

It may not be as high as the $100 million Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, hopes to see, however.

Broadband Internet has become more of an issue in recent years as state and federal officials weigh in on accessibility, affordability and speed issues.

In Mower County, residents have looked to broadband Internet ever since a group of people put together a bid to bring Google’s Google Fiber project, a high-speed data fiber network which would have given the community data speeds of up to 1 gig per second, to Austin.

“Broadband access is like the new transportation system,” said Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin. “You have to be able to connect, you have to be able to connect quickly.”

Vision 2020’s Community Wide Technology committee released the results of a feasibility study last July that shows a high-speed fiber network throughout the city of Austin is a sustainable venture. That high-speed data network could provide Internet speeds of up to 1 Gig per second, or hundreds of times faster than normal Internet speeds.

The project, dubbed Gig Austin, could cost about $35 million to build. The committee also hopes to use state and federal grants, and funding from other partners and nonprofits, to pay for the project. Committee members say they aren’t considering local tax dollars at this time.

More than 80 percent of respondents in a fall door-to-door survey support the project and would switch to a proposed data fiber network if it were built in Austin.

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said with the focus on Greater Minnesota this session, she agreed broadband is a priority.

“Greater Minnesota made a big statement,” she said.

— Sarah Stultz contributed to this report.