Minnesota’s broadband grant program is detailed as model approach

Government Technology recently posted an article – Rural Broadband’s Only Hope: Thinking Outside the Box? The article details Minnesota’s Border to Border grant program and the bipartisan support through the years that has helped it develop and sustain…

Minnesota is making a success of pushing broadband out to its rural areas by collaborating with rural cooperatives, private providers, and a wireless pilot programs as well, said Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development.

The state collaborates with multiplicity of providers to help it meet its goal of border-to-border coverage of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps by the year 2022. By 2026 the state hopes to supply all businesses and homes with access to at least one broadband provider of with download speeds of at least 100 Mbps/20 Mbps.

The Office of Broadband Development also awards grants to providers for its border-to-border program. In 2017 the state legislature allocated $20 million for this program. The grants provide up to 50 percent of project development costs with a maximum grant of $5 million. These grants require the grantee to match the state’s dollars. In the past four years, the state has laid out $85 million for broadband coverage.

One of the strengths of the program, she says, is that it is a framework rather than a rigid plan. These providers “all have different investments, different interests and different specialties,” MacKenzie said. “We have a system and a framework in place that welcomes all these different providers.”

Still, with all this activity surrounding broadband in the state, the issue of rural access is still a problem. Minnesota is ahead of the national average for connectivity, but 39 percent of rural residents have no access to high-speed Internet. Currently 202,000 households in rural areas, or 22 percent, lack access to fixed, nonmobile broadband service at the FCC standard, according to the Minneapolis Star

“We are generally confident that if the state funded the state [grant] program at $35 million a year, we will hit our 2022 goal,” she said.

When the state began to talk about what she calls the federated model of broadband deployment, they had bi-partisan leadership from former Minnesota Gov. Timothy Pawlenty, a Republican, and Democrat Mark Dayton.

And like Oregon, the private providers in Minnesota were worried that the state was fixing to take their business away. “Industry was really concerned about this whole effort,” MacKenzie said. “They were concerned about additional layers of government oversight or regulatory burden. They resisted this for a long time.”

It wasn’t until the decision was made to place the agency in the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and separate from any regulatory agency that the private providers came on board.

“This meant we could play an advocacy role and an investment role separate from the regulatory agency. Once that happened, we tried to create a win for everyone,” she said. “Right now, we have all our major industry groups on board as well with local government, the establishment of our state speed goals gave us our North Star, and it allowed everyone to buy in and have something to work towards.”

While MacKenzie believes that the state can hit the 2022 goal that has been outlined, she struggles with the thought of meeting the sweeping 2026 target with download speeds of at least 100 Mbps/20 Mbps. She is also intrigued by the idea of what small independent cooperatives could bring to the table to help achieve the state’s goals.

“Minnesota is looking at where there might be partnerships between our phone and electric cooperatives, allowing them the opportunity for each to bring their expertise to the table and getting things up and running much faster,” she said.

Some successes have already been seen with a partnership between an electricity and telephone provider in this space, she said.

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