Matt Schmit: Broadband is the great equalizer for Greater Minnesota
This past week, area residents and local leaders joined the Blandin Foundation, Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, and internet service providers for a regional broadband discussion in Pine Island. The Southeastern Minnesota League of Municipalities hosted the event and our goal was simple: to bring together citizens and other stakeholders interested in improving high-speed internet connectivity in areas that are hard to serve or otherwise lack access. Many of us living in southeast Minnesota are fortunate to enjoy high speed, quality, and choice when it comes to internet service. But for some cities, rural communities or homes a mile or less into the countryside, the story can be quite different. Despite the hard work and private investment of providers around the state, roughly 20 percent of rural Minnesota homes and businesses lack access to broadband service.
This challenge and its solution are analogous to the need for rural electrification throughout the American heartland a century ago. Imagine life today without electricity. Broadband and its many applications for economic competitiveness and quality of life is no different. High-speed internet access is essential for home-based business and teleworking, distance learning, telemedicine, and precision agriculture not to mention an ever-increasing number of applications in everyday life as more and more devices are enabled with wireless technology. Last month, area residents celebrated a groundbreaking for a small but significant fiber to the farm deployment in rural Goodhue County.
Similar projects are underway throughout the state, including a pair in rural Winona County. Partnership between area providers and the state allow the former to stretch its return on investment parameters and make the project a reality, extending cutting-edge service to an area that otherwise would have to wait years or longer to join a rapidly changing 21st century connected economy. Minnesota s new Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program addresses a market failure in this case, a situation where private investment capital is limited but consumer demand is strong, if not geographically concentrated. In two years, the matching grant fund has helped extend connectivity to nearly 12,000 homes and businesses and over 100 community anchor institutions such as libraries, schools, and hospitals. Without a doubt, broadband is a great equalizer for economic competitiveness and quality of life in Greater Minnesota.
The 2016 legislature recognized this fact and invested an additional $35 million in the grant program, with a renewed focus on improving connectivity in both unserved and underserved parts of the state, as well as those rural areas with demonstrated economic disparities. The matching grant program was created for areas large and small, with extensive service territories and isolated neighborhoods already benefiting. It s a great example of how smart public investment partnered with private sector or service cooperative know-how can make a real difference for Minnesotans. The current application period opened July 22 and extends through October 3. If you re interested in learning more about Border-to-Border Broadband, visit www.mn.gov/deed/broadband1 or simply contact my office at