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Legislature strikes out on broadband

Craig Clark

Austin City Administrator

Clark

Clark

As our Minnesota Twins continue to struggle and find themselves at the bottom of the Division, our legislative process doesn’t look much better. When it came to advancing broadband throughout the state, the Legislature’s actions this session amounted to a “swing and a miss” by failing to capture the economic development promise of expanding high-quality broadband across Minnesota.

As the calls for a “Greater Minnesota session” largely become inaudible and in the rearview mirror from the 2015 session, we continue to see a disconnect on impactful policies from St. Paul playing out for regional centers like Austin and others. This year, the legislative outcome related to “border-to-border broadband” once again ignored broadband’s economic development potential and focused primarily on the most remote areas, which don’t have the same potential for economic development, or the density to warrant its viability, that you logically get in a larger community like Austin. The Legislature could have hit a home run by favoring projects that have the most economic development potential. Shouldn’t the state be interested in this economic opportunity and synergy?

While the push to bring broadband to these “unserved” areas does have merit, the 2014 and 2015 grant appropriations focused primarily on these remote, sparsely populated areas of the state. The appropriations thus far have been just over $30 million and the state’s count of impacted residents (the prominent number or beneficiaries of grant award), businesses and institutions totals just over 45,000 parcels. The 2016 Legislature appropriated an additional $35 million for future grants, but unfortunately the Legislature went even further away from any enhancement of commerce by adopting new policy language that will make it even more difficult for areas with larger populations and economic development centers to receive a grant.

We should have done better. At a broadband summit in Willmar, Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith said, “Broadband isn’t just nice, it’s necessary if we want Minnesota’s economy to work for everyone, everywhere in Minnesota. We need the bandwidth for Minnesota’s regional centers and rural economies to support innovation and entrepreneurship.” By essentially restricting medium and larger-sized cities and regional centers like Austin from qualifying for grants, the broadband program does not deliver on her desire to help regional centers and enhance the environment for business growth.

Here in Austin, our main street businesses have to reboot their systems frequently when the added load of school kids get home in the afternoon. This isn’t a modern system to conduct commerce. Without state resources to help bring better broadband service to communities like Austin, the divide of costs can’t be bridged and we will suffer.

It is ironic that state officials frequently talk about leveraging local funds from their past awards, and they have, but the real bang for the state’s buck is for resources to be targeted towards population centers where tens of thousands of homes and businesses could benefit from some economies of scale to make modern and affordable broadband a reality.

We’ll keep on rooting for the Twins and working with the Governor, Lt. Governor and legislators, but like the Twins record, the Legislature has a long way to go to bring broadband out of the basement and truly meet its economic development potential.