One recurring theme was the status of broadband Internet service and expansion, an issue Ecklund has thoroughly embraced.
“That’s been one of the key things I’ve been working on since I’ve been in the Legislature,” Ecklund said. “Right now, I’ve got a bill for $120 million sitting in Ways and Means (committee) to fund the rural Border-to-Border grant program.”
The bill would allocate $60 million in each of the next two years to fund broadband expansion across the state.
Ecklund addressed the conflict created between state and federal funding options that has diced up townships and other areas of the district into smaller segments that can only be funded by one source or the other, but not both. Nevada-based LTD Broadband, a company with limited broadband experience, won a $312 million federal award under the Trump administration to develop systems for tracts throughout Minnesota. That decision has already had repercussions for Cook, where Paul Bunyan Communication’s original plan for the city had to be scaled back because its state-supported initiative overlapped places awarded to LTD Broadband by the federal government.
“One supplier got the majority of the contract,” Ecklund said, referring to LTD Broadband, “and it’s being looked at. The sad thing about it is that it’s a lot of money, but it’s spread out over a decade. To have big chunks of the state cut out of any other development just because it’s in that funding is terribly unfortunate. We’ve asked for some federal help on this to see if this is what they intended. We have not gotten an answer back.”
Ecklund acknowledged that some areas of the district have good broadband service, while there are other places “where it’s virtually impossible to get a signal.”
“District 3A has got the best of both worlds and the worst of both worlds when it comes to broadband,” Ecklund said.
The financing conundrum stands to hit rural townships particularly hard, given that lower numbers of potential users and installation issues make fiber optic broadband systems more costly. Ecklund said he is encouraging counties to use some of the federal relief money coming in to help.
“If they can afford to, (they can) set up a broadband account so that when Township XYZ puts in a proposal with one of the carriers and they have to come up with some money, maybe the county could also help,” Ecklund said. “When there’s more local skin in the game it looks better on the application.”
Ecklund also said that “broadband deserts” aren’t unique to rural areas, as there are numerous service gaps in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.
“It is a problem throughout the state and this pandemic has just exacerbated that,” he said.