Here’s the latest from the MN Broadband Coalition…
The Legislature passed a $330 million COVID-19 relief bill on Thursday and recessed until at least April 14. The bill is a package of grants and loans for small businesses, child care, food shelves, healthcare facilities, veterans, housing, and as well as other policy items related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill passed the House 99-4 and the Senate 67-0. It was a strange sight, as lawmakers’ assigned seats were scattered throughout the Capitol building during the debate so they could observe social distancing requirements. Because of space restrictions, only 6 members of the public were allowed to view the debate in-person, with many more watching the live feed online.
The Legislature intends to return on April 14, but that depends entirely on what the pandemic looks like in three weeks, which for now is unclear. When they return, legislators still need to put together a bonding bill, a supplemental budget, and additional support measures related to COVID-19. Legislative leadership has indicated they are willing to move forward with items that have bipartisan support and would require little debate. The Coalition strongly believes that additional funding for broadband is one of those items and we will continue our advocacy for its inclusion.
Governor’s Broadband Task Force Discusses Funding
The Governor’s Broadband Task Force met on March 27 and discussed a number of issues. The Task Force has split into sub-groups and is beginning work on a series of goals and recommendations that will likely melded into a Task Force report at a future date. The conversation of the sub-groups was productive and identified discussion topics like mapping, speed goals, the challenge process, and the Office of Broadband Development.
Task Force Chair Teddy Bekele also indicated his desire to have an additional discussion on potential recommendations to the Legislature and Governor in response to COVID-19. The chair recognized the $30 million annual request and suggested a higher level of funding would be necessary. Permitting, a revolving loan fund, the $5 million grant cap, and raising the state match were other items. The initial response from Task Force members was mixed, but they agreed the issues deserve a thorough discussion in the coming weeks and months. The Coalition continues to believe the Task Force—because of its wide range of stakeholders—is the appropriate place for this conversation to take place. We will monitor and provide feedback should it be necessary.
Reminder to Reach out to Your Legislators and Newspapers
Last week we asked you to considered writing an op-ed for your local newspaper and to reach out to your elected officials to let them know additional broadband should be passed by the Legislature this session. Thank you to those who have already done so! If you haven’t, now is the perfect time. Legislators have gone back to their districts for the next few weeks and will be paying attention to what their constituents have to say.
Here is a sample letter that you should feel free to personalize:
As schools and businesses continue to shut down across the state, we are being asked to work, learn, or receive care from home. But the reality is that thousands of Minnesotans still don’t have access to reliable, high-speed broadband internet.
Giving our children a quality education has always been a priority in Minnesota. Now that our children have been asked to stay home from school, we’re seeing a digital divide between those who have broadband those who do not. Some Minnesota schools are more able to close and employ e-learning solutions than others. It is simply not a viable option for every district in the state. Even though students have connectivity at school, some do not have connectivity in their homes or adequate bandwidth to receive and send online curriculum assignments or projects. Students without access to quality broadband are at a distinct disadvantage from students who have access.
This divide is also present in healthcare. Connecting rural hospitals with their patients via tablet or other smart device is next to impossible if the patient does not have access to the high-speed broadband and technology that drives telehealth services. With increased broadband and a robust telehealth program, rural healthcare providers can treat more patients working with specialists in healthcare system hub sites. We’ve been told “stay home if you are sick.” Broadband would allow you to not only work from home but to receive care from home as well.
The current pandemic has proven that broadband is no different than any other basic service that people need. It is an essential part of our daily lives. We need to do everything we can to ensure border-to-border access, including the Legislature appropriating an additional $30 million in annual funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program this year.