Today Growth & Justice unveiled their Minnesota Equity Blueprint today with a multi-location online event, which gave an opportunity to hear from voices from around the state in their hometown setting emphasizing that Minnesotans have more that united us than divide us. (Best use of online meeting ever, which in turn is great use of broadband!)
The Minnesota Equity Blueprint is intended to serve as a comprehensive policy guidebook for the next decade, to address these demographic and geographic disparities, to build a more inclusive economy, to find more common cause between rural and urban Minnesotans and to restore our natural environment. It was created out of community and consensus in meetings around the state over the last 18 months. Attendees talked about what was important to them, ideas were grouped, interdepencies were mapped out and eventually everything was distilled into a document with four chapters:
- Human Capital
- Economic Development
- Environmental Resilience
Broadband plays highly in the Infrastructure chapter, on the highest end this is the recommendation…
Expand and increase funding for Broadband partnerships and the Border-to-Border Broadband Development program.
And here are the more detailed policy recommendations…
- Prioritize digital inclusion. Digital inclusion and equity efforts must continue focusing on Minnesota’s rural and tribal areas and on areas in the cities where there has been a history of neglect in delivering advanced residential technologies to lower-income communities. State and federal subsidies are needed to help bridge the gap between what it costs to deploy broadband in rural, low-density population areas versus high-density urban areas. Federal assistance is available from agencies such as USDA Rural Development and the U.S. Department of Commerce. State level strategies for improving equity and inclusion16 include:
- Develop a widely accessible best practices inventory for deployment and management of broadband service in rural, sparsely populated and high-cost regions.
- Identify measures of, and continuously track, broadband adoption and affordability, especially for low income and rural consumers, as important aspects of evaluating deployment success.
- Uplift the digital neglect issue and report on lasting damage due to historic policies followed by certain providers in withholding the last generation of advanced residential technologies from lower-income urban communities and rural areas.
- Enforce the non-discrimination provisions of the federal Telecommunications Act regarding full and fair deployment of high-speed broadband networks. This would include creating and enforcing fines for those providers not bringing necessary speeds to all households.
- Fully fund the Telecommunications Equity Aid and Regional Library Telecommunications Aid to facilitate broadband in K-12 education and libraries.
- Invest in digital literacy. Improving the digital skills of residents, workers and organizations is critical. Libraries, K-12 schools, higher educational institutions, workforce development programs and non-profits should offer free digital literacy workshops for people of all ages. “Hackathons” can be used to encourage community members to develop digital solutions to local challenges.
- Broaden access to reliable computing devices. Even when broadband is available and affordable, people are unlikely to invest time on Internet-based activities if their devices are inadequate or unreliable. Community leaders can reach out to local businesses and support programs to recycle computing devices and sell or loan them to community residents. PCs for People, founded in Minnesota in 1998, is a nationally recognized model for this. The non-profit acquires computers in partnership with local businesses that typically retire computers before their useable life is over. Together they keep the computers out of landfills and once refurbished, provide them to people and organizations with limited income in order to help them benefit from the “life changing impact” of computer fluency and mobile Internet.
To further digital inclusion we need to continue to support libraries as digital device and training resources and as community-based destinations for people without devices. Internet researcher Roberto Gallardo also recommends that communities “… establish technology hubs with free access to computers and makerspaces at strategic points in the community where all residents are within 10- 15 minutes walking distance from these technology hubs.”17 And some libraries in Minnesota are doing just that, in partnership with the Libraries Without Borders project which brings literacy, digital literacy, and library services to people outside of a traditional library — for example in pop-up libraries in laundromats and manufactured housing parks. 10. Prepare for future technologies. As technology and applications continue to advance, consumer and business demand for ever faster broadband will also continue. Minnesota must stay committed to both the investments required for broadband maintenance and the investments required to maintain capacity and productivity. The following two recommendations are abridged from the 2018 Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Report, as well as recommendations made to the Task Force by the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition,18 which represents a broad range of statewide community voices.
- Agencies with construction oversight and funding, and agency partners with land stewardship responsibilities must insist on “Dig Once” practices to promote broadband competition and increased deployment.
- Establish a legislative cybersecurity commission to enable information-sharing between policymakers, state agencies, and private industry and to develop legislation to support and strengthen Minnesota’s cybersecurity infrastructure.
- Expand and increase funding for broadband partnerships and the Border-to-Border Broadband Development program. TBDN stakeholders want state legislators to advocate for, create, and leverage public and private partnerships (at local, state, federal, and tribal levels) to fund and sustain improved broadband access and functionality. Specific policy directions include:
- Increase funding to $70 million for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, which has been instrumental in advancing the state’s broadband goals and allowing qualified providers and community applicants to extend and improve networks in the hardest to reach places in Minnesota. While the Legislature appropriated $40 million for the 2020-2021 biennium, the total amount requested by qualified applicants will continue to exceed the money available in the fund.
- Continue the Minnesota Broadband Task Force as a resource to the Governor and the Legislature on broadband policy, with a broad representation of perspectives and experiences, including provider, community, business and labor interests. Membership on the Task Force must be reviewed in light of equity and inclusion goals.
- Sustain and expand Office of Broadband Development (OBD).The OBD is more than a symbolic entity; it links communities, businesses, and providers, and it promotes successful infrastructure project design, execution and management. After a year hiatus, the 2019 Minnesota Legislature approved $40 million in additional state broadband grant funding. The OBD reported receiving 78 applications at the close of the application period in September 2019, for the first $20 million allocation of the grant funds. For the first time, the Legislature also approved multi-year funding from the grants, which is essential to achieving more effective and efficient construction planning and local match leveraging. Stable, biennial funding should be incorporated into DEED’s base budget. Funding must be sufficient for OBD to meet its statutory mandates and create an OBD operating fund to advance and promote programs and projects to improve broadband adoption and use. OBD’s mapping program continues to be particularly useful as both planning and communications tools. This would give confidence to providers and communities alike to continue to plan and build partnerships and prepare effective project proposals.
The Legislature must also remove, or raise, the $5 million cap per project, which can limit applications for projects covering larger areas, such as an entire county. In some cases, larger projects allow for more cost-efficient network planning and construction.
- Reform the Broadband Grant Challenge Procedure to encourage competition. According to community leaders who have experienced working on state broadband grant applications, the Broadband Challenge process: “…remains an obstacle to delivering the best network possible to communities, by being overprotective of incumbent providers and discourages non-incumbent providers from participating in the program over concerns their efforts will be undermined. The process does not require the incumbent to install the same or better service as proposed by the applicant, rather it allows a challenger to improve service — not to 2026 speed goals ‒ but just enough to prevent a grant, to the detriment of the community. If a provider is not meeting a community’s needs, they should not be allowed to place undue burdens on access to state grants.”19