The Minnesota Senate unanimously passed an emergency rural broadband bill Monday.

The bill is chief authored by Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, chair of the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Finance Committee.

The bill provides $20 million to expand broadband access to students and families that find themselves working and educating from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Education, remote work, and telemedicine are major focuses of the legislation, Westrom said. All areas have been severely affected by the state lockdown, he added.

“Investment in broadband is as important as investment in electricity was years ago,” said Westrom in a news release. “Children should have access for school, farmers should have access to watch markets and stay connected, and people in rural areas should have access to the many job opportunities that are now offered remotely.”

A total of $8 million of the bill is designated to distance learning grants for students currently lacking internet access during the COVID-19 peacetime public health emergency. Another $2 million of the full amount will go toward reimbursing licensed healthcare providers who invest in and install telemedicine equipment for COVID-19-related care.

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The commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) will award the grants based on geographic need and a first-come, first-serve basis.

The Border to Border Broadband Fund, which targets the development of broadband in unserved and underserved areas, is a significant recipient of the bill. It will receive $10 million of the $20 million appropriation. However, this funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Program is allocated by the commissioner of Management and Budget, who must determine if federal COVID-19 emergency funds can be used for this purpose, according to Westrom.

Minnesota still contains large swaths of rural and even some small metro areas that fall into the unserved and underserved categories, according to DEED’s map of broadband services. This lack of access was the impetus for this broadband infrastructure bill, Westrom said.

“Broadband is a modern-day utility and the internet is becoming the ‘town square’ of today,” Westrom said in his Senate floor remarks.