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'Without strong broadband, rural communities will be left behind': Minnesotans tell Congress

Contractors laid more than 1,200 miles of fiber optic cable in building Lake Connections, Lake County's municipal broadband project. (News-Chronicle file)

WASHINGTON — A pair of Minnesota business development leaders shared with members of Congress effective efforts they'd taken to boost broadband access in their communities and urged the panel build out the infrastructure that helps people connect to the internet.

The comments came as the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit discussed broadband access in rural America and what could be done to connect more people to the internet.

Medical, tribal, agriculture and local business officials from around the country told the panel about their efforts to boost broadband in their communities. And they said lack of access had made it harder to access important medical, farming and business resources, stunting potential growth in their communities.

By contrast, David Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji, Inc., said local partnerships in his community helped make broadband in the Bemidji the "gold standard." He said employers, employees and entrepreneurs have moved to the community and the area has reaped the benefits.

"Broadband can level the playing field between urban and rural as never before," Hengel said. "I believe broadband is the interstate highway system of our generation. Without strong broadband, rural communities will be left behind."

Neela Mollgaard, executive director of Red Wing Ignite, explained to the panel how the city of Red Wing partnered with Hiawatha Broadband and used state and federal funds to build out broadband in the area, making it available to businesses, entrepreneurs and students.

"For us, broadband is like electricity, turn it on and it works," Mollgaard said. "Yet you need more than the gig to grow the economy."

Mollgaard said Red Wing Ignite continues to build on the internet infrastructure to help attract and retain workers and entrepreneurs in the area.

The committee didn't take action on July 11, but leaders agreed that building out broadband should be a priority for Congress.

“We can do a better job and we have to do a better job because we’re losing our population in rural America,” U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican and ranking member of the subcommittee said. “How do we get it there?”

Lawmakers have proposed requiring broadband internet service providers to regularly publish accurate maps showing where people can access the internet and where they can't. That legislation would help the federal government make a national broadband map, which could illustrate gaps in coverage.

That plan could cost $50 million in the next budget year. The committee's chairman, U.S. Rep. David Scott, a Democrat from Georgia, said further discussions about improving broadband access would be decided during the federal budget-writing process.

“It takes money, it takes priority of funding," Scott said. “We need our rural communities to have a seat at the table as we look at the budget, as we look at where this money needs to go."

At the state level, the Minnesota Legislature earlier this year approved $40 million to build out broadband over the next two years in an effort to fully cover the state.

Ninety-one percent of homes statewide have access to the internet speeds the state hopes to connect statewide in the next two years, the Governor's Task Force on Broadband reported in its 2018 annual report. In rural Minnesota, 80% of households have that access. And the state is still working with private companies to get the remaining 185,000 households that lack that connection up to speed by 2022.