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Commentary: Broadband a necessity under lock-down orders

By Dan Larson

Minnesota Rural Counties Executive Director

With broadband demand surging from home-bound Americans using the internet for work, shopping, school, telemedicine, and a social media bridge to family and friends, it’s good to know the system is holding up pretty well under the COVID-19 strain.

But that system only works if you have access, and without any clear pandemic end in sight, hundreds of thousands of primarily rural Minnesotans are stuck in digital darkness while the gigabyte world streams by.

We all feel the isolation brought about by social distancing and sheltering in place orders, but those orders hit people harder who are cut-off from work, school and loved ones due to lack of adequate broadband access. With the rural economy already lagging, this is not good news.

Our member counties are on the front-line of the public health, public safety and economic security battle to get a grip on this unprecedented outbreak, and we stand in unified support of the shelter in place directives from the state and federal government. But those directives turned a spotlight on the farms, businesses and homesteads, primarily in rural areas, being left-behind through no fault of their own due to lack of access to high-speed broadband.

The Office of Broadband Development reports the percentage of Minnesota households without access to wired broadband that meet the FCC minimum speed threshold dropped from 15 percent in 2015 to roughly 7 percent in 2019. But the number of un-served households in Greater Minnesota is closer to 17 percent under current speed goals – and balloons to a whopping 33 percent when 2026 revised speed goals kick-in! The 2026 speed goals reflect current accepted business speeds.

Slow or no access means your child can’t do school work at home and is at risk of falling behind the rest of the class. If you run a business, it means your competitors have worldwide access and you don’t, reducing your marketability and reducing the odds of keeping your head above water. The same holds true for farmers, who compete in an international marketplace. And with tele-medicine emerging as a new cornerstone of health care delivery, the prognosis is bleak for anyone who can’t connect to the data centers that allow providers in small practices and large health systems to communicate with one another.

If you suggested to the 83 percent of people in the state who are connected to high-speed, reliable and affordable internet under this national security threat, that their connection is not a luxury but a virtual necessity, I’m sure they would agree. We know there are nearly 20 percent of un-served people in rural Minnesota who would wholeheartedly agree.

There is a $30 million bipartisan broadband bill waiting for passage at the Legislature, and $50 million in unfunded projects sitting on the sidelines that could work as a much-needed kick-start for the rural economy.

Without taking anything away from the need to mitigate the immediate health and economic impacts of COVID-19, while also recognizing nearly one-in-five rural residents are being asked to shelter in place until further notice with virtually no access to adequate internet service, we urge Governor Walz and state legislative leaders to consider broadband funding as a priority this session and sustain that funding until state speed goals are met.