Broadband means more than just connectivity. It means productivity in rural MN

University of Minnesota Alumni magazine recently highlighted the need for better broadband and the various roles U of M grads have had on getting better broadband. That includes a bit about the Blandin Foundation and U of M grad Bernadine Joselyn…

“When we ask people around the state what concerns them most,” says Bernadine Joselyn (B.A. ’78, M.P.A. ’01) of the Blandin Foundation, “they talk about education, health care, jobs. They don’t talk about broadband access, yet broadband is the common intersection for those things. Broadband supports them all.”

The Blandin Foundation, based in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is a private foundation funded through a $407 million trust, established to strengthen rural Minnesota communities. Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement for the foundation, has worked with a number of communities in the Itasca area and elsewhere to ensure that rural voices inform public policy on broadband issues.

About the rural/urban gap…

According to the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development—housed in  the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED)— in 2015, 85.8 percent of Minnesota residences had 25 Mbps/3Mbps or greater connections, but only 68 percent of rural residences had that access. After the state and federal government, foundations, and providers, including rural cooperatives, began directing resources toward the disparity, by April 2019, 92.7 percent of households in Minnesota had access to broadband. That’s a significant improvement, but it still leaves tens of thousands without full, affordable access (see map above).

Why is this important? Access to broadband is the difference between a rural clinic sharing radiological imaging with a consultant in real time or facing lengthy waits. It’s also the difference between a school where teachers and students access multimedia learning tools versus using printed handouts. Broadband can even let farmers use the latest field-sensing and management technology to plant, rather than relying solely on intuition and experience to raise their crops.

About the ROI…

Two years ago, the Blandin Foundation commissioned a study on the return on investment (ROI) of public funds used to support broadband access in five rural Minnesota counties. The study showed that the broadband investment resulted in immediate economic improvement and higher land values in three of the counties—Beltrami, Crow Wing, and Goodhue. In the fourth county, Sibley, the ROI took one year. The fifth county, Lake, had an ROI that took six years. Unsurprisingly, the longest ROI was for the county with the sparsest population—an example of something known as the “the last mile” challenge.

Where dense populations exist, laying cable for a mile to carry broadband is reasonably cost efficient. But putting cable out a mile to one or two rural households isn’t worthwhile for some cable providers. Conversely, some providers do lay cable to that last mile, but then place the cost burden onto users, making broadband unaffordable for many.

And history on the Minnesota model…

A task force on broadband, organized in 2011 by then-governor Mark Dayton, set the first statewide goals for increasing rural access to highspeed broadband. The group set a goal of having 25 Mbps/3Mbps access in every home and business across the state by 2022; and 100 Mbps/20 Mbps to the same by 2026.

Angie Dickison (Humphrey School of Public Policy Fellow, ’14) is currently the broadband development manager for the Office of Broadband Development. She says DEED has awarded $85.6 million in financial assistance to support broadband over past years. Their grants, which require a 50 percent match by the applicant, have helped to connect broadband to 35,000 homes in Minnesota. However, only 68.4 percent of rural households in the state currently meet the 2026 100 Mbs/20 Mbps goal.

This past June, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bipartisan bill to provide $40 million in grant funds to further broadband access within the state. The amount represents about half the funding interested parties had lobbied for, but in the budget realities of the state, it represented a victory of sorts. The money will be allotted over two years, with $20 million in 2019 in grants and loans, and $20 million in 2020.

This entry was posted in MN, Rural 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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