Hope for broadband in 2017 MN legislative session?

This graphic depicts visually how rural areas in Minnesota still lag in access to high speed internet. Click for full image.

As I mentioned before, the state of Minnesota’s efforts to expand broadband access in rural areas had one big effect last year. MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters is now hooked to a fiber optic cable capable of delivering gigabyte internet speeds. And I pay less per month for my internet, phone, and television services than I did for inferior services before. The same is true for more than 1,000 households in Balsam, Lawrence, and Iron Range townships in Itasca County.

But that’s only an example of what’s possible, not the end of the story. As a recent report by the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband shows, the big goal — ubiquitous access to high speed internet throughout Minnesota — remains far from complete.

Nevertheless, Republicans now control of the State Senate and boosted their command of the House of Representatives. That leaves us wondering whether GOPers will be interested in backing Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s $100 million recommendation for new broadband projects.

“Last year, we made strides with the largest investment in the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program to date, but we know there’s more work to be done to achieve our goal of broadband access for every Minnesotan,” said Margaret Anderson Kelliher, chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, in a statement. “Broadband plays a vital role in connecting people to health care, education and the global economy. The recommendations in our report will continue to move us closer to the border-to-border broadband access we need to succeed now and into the future.”

The Broadband report also requests $10 million for the state broadband office. Policy goals include expansion of “dig once” construction rules, ensuring that state-funded infrastructure spending installs conduit for future broadband lines. Additionally, the report recommends many partnerships with state and federal programs designed to create better, more affordable internet access.

“Our goal is to make high-speed broadband accessible to every home, school, business and community in the state, particularly in Greater Minnesota,” said DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy in the same statement. “This is an important tool that will not only improve the quality of life of all Minnesotans, but will be an investment in the future economic development of our state.”

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt and new Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka haven’t released their budget proposals yet. Their health care reform proposals will come first. Two years ago Republicans did include rural broadband spending in their budgets, but at amounts far smaller than proposed by the governor and then-DFL Senate.

With such a focus on rural voters in recent campaigns, one would reason that Republicans would be open to at least some subsidy of broadband expansion in rural areas. The question is how much? And how much will they hold back to force the governor to negotiate?

I can offer this little political observation, however. My friend former Rep. Tom Anzelc lost his race to current Rep. Sandy Layman last November. Layman carried most of the rural townships in the district, but barely dented Anzelc’s lead in Balsam, Iron Range or Lawrence. High speed internet wasn’t the only reason for that, but I have concluded that it helped Anzelc in these areas on what was for him an otherwise bleak election map.

Modern tech infrastructure is a winning political issue in rural Minnesota. Rural people want it for work, for education, and for communication. Building rural communities means including rural people in today’s economy.

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