The Center for Rural Affairs just released a new Map to Prosperity…
This paper begins by underscoring the ability of broadband technology to revitalize the rural economy. The farm and small business sectors are just two areas where this potential is already being realized. Manufacturing and ecommerce are others.
We then consider obstacles to broadband expansion. As expected, geography emerges as the most formidable barrier. However, improvements in both adoption rates and literacy can provide a needed boost at the household and community levels.
Finally, we explore solutions. Federal stimulus, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, has expanded service and spurred innovation. This has also created momentum at the next level where states, such as Minnesota, have built upon and enhanced what federal support was initially able to achieve. When paired with leadership and commitment on the part of states, continued funding at the federal level is essential to closing the digital divide.
Also essential is an improved approach to gathering, analyzing, and employing broadband data. Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its state-based counterparts are making critical decisions based on erroneous and incomplete information. This has resulted in an overstatement of broadband availability and continued misallocation of funds. Any serious policy effort to extend broadband to unserved areas must include a fix.
The paper is full of a lot of great numbers from reports I’ve posted here over the last few years – but nice to have them in one place. I was looking forward to exploring solutions. Then I was both proud and disappointed to see the Minnesota Model featured for highlight. Disappointed only because I wanted to get some good ideas – and proud to see we’re on track…
Perhaps the most successful policy can be found in Minnesota. The state’s Border- to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program was first authorized in 2014. Since then, state lawmakers have invested $85 million, resulting in broadband access for 3,852 households, 5,189 businesses, and 300 community institutions.40 See Figure 4 on the previous page for Minnesota’s 2017 Border-to-Border awards.
State-based funding is used to meet Minnesota’s goal of universal access to broadband by 2022. Border-to-Border operates by making grants available to internet providers willing to expand service to underserved or unserved areas of the state. Grant dollars are used to offset upfront costs of infrastructure for fiber optic, cable, fixed wireless, and DSL technologies.41
Each recipient must be able to provide matching funds. To qualify, each project must be financially and technically viable. Recipients must also prove the project is capable of being scaled to 100 Mbps, a speed that administrators expect all Minnesotans to have access to by 2026.42
The most recent round of grants was announced in late 2017. A total of $26 million was distributed to 39 projects, leveraging an additional $34 million in local and private funding. This is estimated to secure broadband access for 9,973 households, 2,169 businesses, and 60 community institutions across the state.43
Minnesota took advantage of momentum created by the federal stimulus and built framework to meet the unique needs of its population.
The result is a program that stands out as a model of success. Once enough data was compiled to determine underserved and unserved areas across the state, leaders developed clear and ambitious goals, identified a key source of funding, and leveraged partnerships to carry that investment forward. Leadership from the governor’s office was unwavering, and allies in both the Senate and House provided necessary support.
Other states would be wise to glean lessons from this experience. Chief among these is the value of developing a robust expansion program, including clear metrics and guidelines, and embracing public-private partnerships.
Capitalizing on federal investment was important, but a big part of Minnesota’s success came from an ability to utilize local actors and larger market forces to achieve state-based goals.