Broadband has kept us connected and has kept our economy and lives at least limping along until the pandemic can give way to a return to something resembling normalcy.
So Minnesotans can greet this news from St. Paul during these first days of legislative session with optimism: Lawmakers are working on continued funding to keep pushing internet access deeper into the state’s rural reaches and to keep improving connection speeds everywhere.
They get into the numbers…
Last year, lawmakers allocated $40 million, one of the largest investments in internet access in state history, a reflection of the urgency posed by the pandemic.
“We found out it wasn’t nearly enough,” Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, the broadband bill’s lead sponsor, said in an interview last fall with the News Tribune Editorial Board. “There were $79 million worth of requests for projects. So we know there’s more work to do.”
With funding requests only growing, Ecklund this session has introduced a $120 million state investment over two years — $60 million annually. The state’s broadband matching grants program would receive the money and use it to leverage private dollars to reach speed and connectivity goals set statewide. This week, Gov. Tim Walz’s budget proposal included $50 million a year for the biennium for broadband.
Unfortunately, Walz’s budget is for $50 million for one year. That’s an important distinct first because of the obvious difference in amount but also because the MN Broadband Task Force has recommended $60 million per year ($120 million per biennium) on an ongoing basis so that communities and providers have time to plan to invest and build.
Even if Ecklund’s $60 million per year or Walz’s $50 million per year aren’t what wind up approved and allocated this session for broadband, an appropriate dollar figure can be negotiated. Minnesotans can be encouraged that a commitment in St. Paul to improving internet access and connection speeds remains strong on both sides of the aisle. We also can be encouraged that $7 billion has been earmarked for broadband efforts nationwide from federal COVID-19 relief funds. Minneosota certainly stands to receive its share.
“We can’t leave people behind,” Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said in a story in the Mankato, Minnesota, Free Press this week about broadband funding.