Duluth News Tribune: Our View: Momentum building to broaden broadband
Similar to the way every corner of America was connected to the electrical grid in the 1930s, all Americans — even those in the remotest, most rural of places, which encompasses much of Minnesota — can now be connected to broadband high-speed Internet. Getting everyone online is seen as critical for delivering health care outside of big cities, for improving the education of all kids and so businesses, no matter where they’re located, can remain competitive in today’s global economies.
Recognizing and embracing all this, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, whose 8th Congressional District includes Duluth and Northeastern Minnesota, introduced legislation this week to launch a massive, electrification-like effort to broaden broadband all over the U.S. His measure would create for the first time a coordinated federal strategy to bring high-tech communications to millions now underserved.
“There is currently no clear congressionally approved plan, no strategy and no single federal office responsible for helping connect tens of millions of rural people to modern broadband services,” Nolan said in a statement. “Here in rural America, high-speed broadband is essential to our ability to compete — to help start new businesses, create new jobs, attract new people and provide the education and health care services so essential to our quality of life.”
Centralized at the new Office of Rural Broadband Initiatives, which would be created as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Nolan’s measure, would be $724 million in grants and loans already being distributed for broadband. The office also would handle existing federal regulations related to broadband.
Run by a new undersecretary appointed by the president, the office would be the go-to place for local, regional and state broadband efforts as well as serve as a central clearinghouse for broadband information for federal agencies.
Nolan’s bill represents the sort of leadership the federal government should be taking, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith suggested while speaking at Farmfest Tuesday in Gilfillan Estate, Minn.
“Rural electrification happened because of the federal government,” she said, according to coverage from the nearby New Ulm Journal. “Broadband in Minnesota’s rural communities is not just nice, it’s necessary.”
Without broadband access, some rural Minnesota doctors have to drive to a McDonald’s restaurant for access to read patient’s medical charts, Smith pointed out. “It’s changing the way students learn too. Now, some rural school buses have WiFi, allowing kids to study online while riding the bus. Sometimes, they wait on the bus in their farmyard, finishing their homework before they get off the bus, because they don’t have broadband access at home.”
Nolan’s initiative may leave the impression Washington isn’t doing anything to encourage broadband in rural areas, where, right now, fewer than 50 percent of residents have adequate access. Washington may not be doing enough, but there is the federal Connect America Fund, the modern reincarnation of the Universal Service Fund, the funding mechanism that helped build out telephone networks, including to farms and other sparsely populated areas, last century.
The Connect America Fund collects fees from telephone users in order to offer annual service subsidies that allow Internet providers to extend service to higher-cost rural areas without increasing the bills of existing ratepayers. Through 2020, $85 million is available annually in Minnesota alone.
Our state’s Internet service providers — Frontier, Consolidated, Windstream and CenturyLink — just need to say yes to the cash. Frontier did so in June, accepting enough to extend broadband Internet access to 46,910 rural Minnesota homes and businesses. Windstream accepted more than $1.5 million, it announced yesterday, enough to expand and support broadband to approximately 8,880 rural Minnesota customers. The deadline to accept the money is the end of this month.
Encouraging is that momentum seems to still be building for border-to-border broadband, in Minnesota as well as in D.C. Discouraging is that it seems to be happening so frustratingly slow, as we opined last month, Minnesotans may be left swearing they can hear the high-pitched whine of a dial-up modem searching for connection.