Today the MN Broadband Coalition hosted a Broadband Day on the Hill. The focus on the Coalition has been on ongoing funding for the MN Broadband grants to the tune of $35 million per year (or $70 million per biennium). There was universal support in the House, Senate and Governor’s office until the Senate Republicans came out with a one-time investment of $30 million for broadband.
We heard from several legislators and leaders:
Senator Erik Simonson recognized the importance of building out the network so rural communities can flourish. He said that we need to work on Senate Republicans to encourage them to increase broadband funds. It is possible but it takes education.
DEED Commissioner Steve Grove spoke about his experience at Google and the importance of making sure that everyone in Minnesota have the opportunity to grow as Google did. He pointed out that it’s going to take advocacy and leadership from people on the frontlines to get $70 million for broadband. And that we have opportunities to use broadband to close some of the (geographic, racial…) gaps we have in Minnesota.
We heard from Senator Mark Koran who brought up successful grant projects, such as Fish Lake Township. He added that we need to recognize that some providers don’t want to upgrade to the needs of the community. Rural areas can’t continue being 10 years behind the need. Grant funding can help them resolve community need with business need.
We heard from Representative Rob Ecklund that broadband is more important today than it ever has been. He is going to stick at $70 million for broadband. In his own house, he has 3 lines of fiber running near the house – but none reach him. Turns out he can’t even run two laptops at a night with the broadband he has.
Next we heard from Senator Paul Gazelka about the $30 million for broadband compared to the Governor’s budget of $70 million – suggesting that maybe the final investment might be somewhere between the two numbers. He recognizes that his budget is less than other budgets, but they also have fewer tax increases. He also said that ongoing funding for broadband was unlikely. He did point out that broadband is important and to that end, it had been moved from the Jobs Committee to Senator Westrom’s Ag Committee because of Westrom’s passion for broadband.
We heard from Representation Daudt he was positive about funding but not ongoing funding – because while we have a surplus now, the budget shows a deficit in the tails. He pointed out that the DHS Is getting a 19 percent hike in their budget and suggested that Broadband proponents look at the DHS budget. Attendee Mark Erickson pointed out that the investment in broadband might help reduce other costs – with tools such as telehealth and remote education and jobs.
Attendees had questions about unwilling providers. There was clearly frustration with Frontier and other incumbents that have not met the needs of their communities. That being said, other recognized incumbents that are meeting needs.
Attendees went to talk to their respective representatives. Apparently many were concerned that DEED would have trouble managing $35 million a year – which is an off thought since they already managed $35 million in 2016. Their management of such funds has given birth to the “Minnesota Model” of State-inspired broadband development (grants, office to manage them in DEED, state goals…).