Rural Minnesota needs broadband – what will help?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune today features a big story on the need for better broadband in much of rural Minnesota. They opened with a story about a business that recently moved from Minnesota to Wisconsin for better broadband…

“It never dawned on me that it would be such a detriment to my business,” Jelinski said of inadequate broadband access. “There’s no reason for it.”

A recent switch to a DSL connection helped, but Jelinski worried about her business’ future. The family moved to De Pere, Wis., last week — after Jelinski confirmed that it has great broadband access.

Some predictions on future federal support for broadband

“The outlook [for rural broadband improvements] is not positive” under Trump, said Milda Hedblom, a lawyer, broadband advocate and digital studies professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Hedblom said she’s worried that the president, a former businessman, will naturally favor big private companies over municipalities and local collaborations. That could mean he’ll steer federal broadband funds to big providers that are averse to expensive rural projects, she said, since the return on investment isn’t as quick or as large

Some details on federal funding..

Trump’s budget, released May 23, proposes $1 billion in cuts from U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development spending — including some funding for broadband infrastructure. Instead, he wants $160 million in new rural economic infrastructure grants that would include broadband money — along with many other projects. Half the money would be set aside for Appalachia; broadband’s share was not specified.

Trump also plans a $1 trillion infrastructure package— which he is expected to detail on Monday — and his budget lists broadband among priorities that include “surface transportation, airports, waterways, ports, drinking and waste water.” It added that “federal funding for infrastructure is not the solution,” however, and promised to “fix underlying incentives, procedures and policies.” Exactly what that means is unclear.

Some advice…

Some rural broadband advocates say the infrastructure initiative could be the best bet for future federal grants.

“Our message to communities is get ready. Those with civic infrastructure [in place] to respond to opportunities … are going to be in the best position to benefit,” said Bernadine Joselyn, public policy and engagement director for the Grand Rapids, Minn.-based Blandin Foundation.

And some new approaches…

Uncertainty about government funds has prompted new approaches to leveraging grants and raising awareness:

• Member-owned rural electric cooperatives are installing broadband to fill voids left by mainstream providers.

About 100 of the nation’s 900 co-ops “are involved in some way,” said Martha Duggan, who handles regulatory issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “We’re very local … and very focused on economic development.” She hopes funding will be included in Trump’s infrastructure plan and the 2018 farm bill.

• The Minnesota Farmers Union called broadband “an essential utility” in an April report to state officials. Gary Wertish, the group’s president, said it’s time for a broad national initiative. “The state can’t do it on its own,” he said.

“We’re trying to compete in a global economy and if we don’t have access to broadband, we’re left behind again,” Wertish said.

• Communities are pooling resources and clout. Six southwestern Minnesota counties (Chippewa, Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Pipestone and Yellow Medicine) are working with the Southwest Regional Development Commission and in May received a $123,800 Blandin Foundation grant to study ways to fill broadband gaps.

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About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

1 thought on “Rural Minnesota needs broadband – what will help?

  1. Lost creative class population…missed economic development opportunities. Aitkin County has been asking for better broadband for a decade with little progress to show. Locals need to make broadband happen themselves. Cannot wait any longer!

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