The story of Minnesota’s state broadband funds past, present and future from Matt Schmit

Recently, the Daily Yonder posted an article by (former Senator) Matt Schmit on Minnesota’s Border to Border Broadband grants, specifically the history of the legislation (which he authored) that made it happen in 2014…

The first bill, which created the grant fund, focused on improving service in unserved areas while not ignoring the underserved; achieving technology neutrality while requiring scalability of all state-funded deployments to 100 Mbps /100 Mbps speeds; and encouraging meaningful partnerships among various entities, such as local communities, tribal governments, incumbent and competitive providers, and rural cooperatives.

He mentions the obstacles…

At each turn, we overcame these obstacles, but not without consequence. Concerns over statewide prevailing wage mandates on public funding in rural markets led to a bipartisan exemption in state law, a tweak to the program that has worked well and enhanced program purchasing power. A desire to improve service in underserved areas inspired a small carve-out for targeted investment but to date has produced scant proposals. An infusion of new federal CAF dollars and an interest, however idealistic, in coordinating scarce public resources and leveraging federal funding to maximum benefit led to a challenge process that has failed to push incumbent CAF recipients to provide more competitive service.

And remembers a plan that didn’t work…

As beneficial as Minnesota’s Border to Border program has been, I remain convinced that my other bill was the better bill – and far more likely to inspire greater impact. The bill’s overarching goal was to facilitate local and regional cross-sector collaboration and partnership by introducing new public financing tools to the rural broadband conversation. After all, if lack of private investment capital for scarcely populated service territories remains the fundamental challenge underlying broadband service gaps, this bill sought to address the problem head on.

Intended to provide new tools for local and regional solutions, the legislation clarified and enhanced local bonding authority, enabled creation of regional broadband districts to strengthen cooperatives and public-private partnerships with new taxing authority, and provided a critical source of non-state match funding for state grant program applicants.

Dramatically mischaracterized by one industry lobbyist as the “most radical legislation ever introduced in Minnesota,” the bill never even received a hearing.

And makes some recommendations going forward…

At the same time, the broadband grant program would benefit from a few upgrades. First, multiyear base funding, preferably through a dedicated source that limits its exposure to general fund competition, would provide more stability to the program. Second, a reconsidered incumbent challenge process would help achieve the intended purpose of pushing CAF recipients to invest in better technology and offer faster speeds. Third, new tools and clear authority for local and regional entities to raise non-state funds to match a state grant or forego state funding altogether would improve rural broadband providers’ access to capital.

This entry was posted in MN, MN Broadband Fund Awards, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

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