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Commentary: Rural areas need full broadband funding

By Nancy Hoffman, Chair of Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, Chisago County Economic Development Authority

When it comes to broadband funding, Minnesota elected leaders deserve credit for recognizing that access to opportunity is not universal — even if talent in our state is.

Since 2014, the state has appropriated $85 million to local internet providers through the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program to speed the pace toward meeting the goal of providing high-speed broadband access at minimum speeds to every corner of the state by 2022. While internet service providers jostle to compete for customers in densely populated cities and regional centers, the market gets pretty thin in deeper rural areas of the state where towns are sparsely populated and farm operations measure their acreage by the thousands.

That doesn't mean access is any less crucial — and that's where the state comes in. There is talent in every corner of the state, and no corner of the state should be left on the dark

side of the digital divide.

The Border-to-Border Broadband program has helped the state reach an admirable 91 percent penetration rate toward the universal access goal, and has become a national model that other states are using to make sure they aren't left behind. But the Minnesota program hit a snag last year. After four consecutive years of funding, the bill authorizing the 2018 appropriation was caught in a political crossfire and vetoed by former Governor Dayton over issues not related to broadband. That stopped the program, and the progress needs to continue this year to make up for lost time.

The good thing is that it can be done and we know exactly how much is necessary to put the program back on track. That number is $35 million a year for the next two years, or $70 million for the biennium. That's the number the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition and Gov. Walz recommended to the Legislature, and that's the number the Minnesota House passed off the floor last week. The Senate is taking a different strategy, moving a bill authorizing a one-time appropriation of $30 million as its Border-to-Border position. We don't think that is enough, but we understand and respect that positions are being established and negotiations are about to begin as the May 20, end of session deadline begins to emerge.

Broadband funding is not controversial and we look forward to continuing to work with the Senate to help them try and get their number up to something that would help this successful program make up for lost time.

Agriculture and forestry are cornerstone Minnesota industries and need the tools to be able to compete in a gig-speed, wired world. Nobody doubts that the entrepreneurial spirit that built Polaris Industries, Arctic Cat, Marvin Windows, Schwan's Food Service, and other iconic Minnesota industries is alive and well in Greater Minnesota today. There is plenty of emerging talent and energy in every part of our state — and legislators can unleash that potential by fully funding the nationally recognized Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program.