Duluth News Tribune: Our view: More good news for faster rural Internet
The efforts to push business-boosting, health-improving high-speed Internet deeper into rural Minnesota just keep coming — even if still a bit slowly.
Gov. Mark Dayton said in the St. Paul Pioneer Press last week that he’ll ask lawmakers to approve $100 million this legislative session to continue building out the infrastructure and running the wires that will give vast expanses of Northeastern Minnesota and other sparsely populated reaches of the state “equal access to the economic future that people in the (Twin Cities) metropolitan area (already) enjoy.”
Such funding would demonstrate, finally, a real commitment to what long has been a stated state priority. Task forces have been created, studies have been done, and for the past two years the state has been providing matching grants for projects to improve Internet access in rural areas. But the grant program, while much ballyhooed, has been woefully underfunded at only $20 million from the Legislature two years ago and only $10 million last year. The $100 million boost the governor is seeking is the amount experts have indicated is needed. With approval from the 2016 Legislature, the money would go a long way toward helping Minnesota keep up with other states while also helping Minnesota farmers, rural business owners and others remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace.
More and more, too, health care is going high-tech, and broadband is needed to deliver quality care to areas outside of large cities. Rather than driving hours to get to a major medical facility in a large metro area, rural patients can be connected to high-quality care via high-speed broadband technology.
“For too many across the Arrowhead, access to high-speed Internet remains out of reach. While 97 percent of Anoka County homes enjoy access to high-speed Internet, only 44 percent of the homes further north in Cook County can say the same,” Minnesota’s U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar wrote in a commentary Sunday in the News Tribune.
In an interview with News Tribune editorial board members in the fall, Klobuchar called the critical need to expand broadband “the rural electrification issue of our time.
“And it’s the perfect time to move on it,” she said. “We’re no longer governing from crisis. It’s no longer just about access. It’s how fast it is. Can you compete?”
“If you run a small business, or a business, you need broadband,” U.S. Sen. Al Franken, also of Minnesota, said in an interview in July with the News Tribune editorial board. “You need speed. And so this is a disgrace we have not caught up to the rest of the developed world.”
In addition to the state’s efforts — and with support and action from Klobuchar, Franken, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, and others in D.C. — the federal government has provided about $500 million to Minnesota for rural broadband efforts through the Connect America Fund, the modern reincarnation of the Universal Service Fund, which was what helped build out telephone networks, including to farms and other sparsely populated areas, last century.
Border-to-border broadband is as critical now to Minnesota’s future — and to all Minnesotans. Funding has to back up big talk. And it seems to be starting to, even if still a bit slowly.