Task force recommends $200M for rural broadband

Published 10:03 am Thursday, February 4, 2016

By Ricardo Lopez

Minneapolis Star Tribune

ST. PAUL — The push to enhance high-speed Internet access in rural areas of Minnesota got a boost Wednesday when a state task force recommended that the state spend another $200 million on the effort.

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The report provides fresh ammunition to Gov. Mark Dayton, who has pressed legislators to provide more funding to boost broadband access in outstate Minnesota, where roughly two in 10 homes lack high-speed connections.

“While [$200 million] is a fraction of the total capital investment required to meet the state’s border-to-border broadband objective, it is an important contribution,” the report said.

The report said that, while the infusion into the state’s broadband grant program would help Minnesota achieve its goal, it would cost $900 million to $3.2 billion to fully expand high-speed Internet statewide.

Dayton in December proposed $100 million for the broadband grant program, an effort legislative Democrats say they support.

House Republicans have called for reforms to how the broadband grants are administered, saying Minnesota should do more to leverage existing federal funding for broadband access. GOP legislators, who hold the majority in the House, are awaiting updated budget projections later in February before saying how much they would propose for broadband, said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, whose committee has jurisdiction over the issue.

“The goals are admirable, but the implementation has been flawed,” said Garofalo, a computer network engineer.

He said the current program subsidizes high-speed connections at too high a cost. “We’re burning through money to provide premier Internet service to a small number of people,” he said. “It’s fiscal insanity … it’s in the state’s best interest to get high-speed bandwidth to as many people at the lowest cost possible.”

The task force is made up of consumers, health care executives, broadband providers and local elected officials.

Task force members made a handful of other recommendations, such as boosting telecommunications aid to schools and libraries, as well as exempting telecommunications equipment from the state’s sales tax.

Broadband expansion efforts

Efforts to improve the state’s broadband infrastructure date back to 2008, when the first task force convened. Dayton, who was first elected in 2010, in 2011 formed his own task force, which issued the most recent report.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith in recent months has traveled throughout the state, touting faster connection speeds as an economic development tool.

“Broadband Internet isn’t just nice,” Smith said in a statement. “We need the bandwidth for Minnesota’s regional centers and rural economies to support innovation and entrepreneurship. If we don’t do this, 244,000 Minnesotans and hundreds of communities will lack the basic infrastructure to connect to the 21st-century economy, and that’s not fair.”

Rural cities and towns currently jockey for grants from a limited pot of funding. Last year, the state received 44 applications, totaling nearly $30 million in requests. Fifteen projects were approved for the $11 million available.