Area lawmakers say broadband funding will be a crucial issue in this year’s legislative session, but no one is certain just how much the state will spend.
COVID-related regulations and lockdown efforts exacerbated Greater Minnesota’s need for better internet access over the past year, giving urgency to the Capitol’s annual debate over broadband infrastructure.
Democrats and Republicans have argued over broadband funding levels in recent years, as well as what type of broadband technology to use.
They mention the recent House committee meeting…
Democratic Rep. Rob Ecklund, of International Falls, introduced a $120 million broadband funding proposal earlier this week, the latest in a series of similarly sized DFL bills over the past few years. While Republicans agree broadband will be a priority this year, many are reluctant to support a bill that large in light of a projected $1.3 billion state budget deficit.
“It’s a nice dream,” said Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake. “I’m just glad that they’re willing to support broadband.”
There are questions about federal aid…
Complicating the issue is the looming federal aid money from the stimulus proposal Congress passed in December. States are expected to get about $300 billion in funding for various issues related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which includes about $7 billion marked for broadband efforts.
It’s unclear how that broadband money will be divvied up. Local lawmakers say they have yet to hear from federal officials how much they’ll receive or whether they’ll have to provide matching grants to accept the aid.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she expects federal aid to cover the state’s immediate broadband industry needs as there’s a backlog on building supplies. Yet she also said broadband is “one of the biggest issues ever for economic recovery of the state.”
Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, agreed, saying the state should invest as much as it can in broadband this year to make up for the lack of access some in Greater Minnesota face.
Senator Draheim to introduce bill soon…
Draheim and Frentz have been key negotiators on broadband issues over the past few years. Draheim said he expects to introduce broadband legislation soon that would also include requirements for companies to ensure they connect all households in a project area, as well as follow through on promised services.
Also thinking about issues of speed goals…
Draheim also said he’d like to see the state increase its 2022 broadband goals of 25 mbps download and 2 mpbs [should be 3 mbps] upload speeds. Minnesota has a 2026 goal of all homes and businesses having access to 100 mbps download and 20 mbps speeds.