Broadband Task Force renews push for high-speed access

NEW ULM — The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband released its latest report to Gov. Dayton and the Legislature this week, calling for £71.5 million in ongoing biennial funding for grants to expand the network and for ongoing funding to allow an agency to continue focusing on the issue. Bill Otis, president of New Ulm-based NU-Telecom, said rural phone companies like his rely on federal and state grants to help build costly fiber networks.

“We’ve made progress (in adding fiber) but it’s slow without some of the grants. We’ve been involved in grants that allow us to build out to areas that would be economically unreasonable without the grants. And even with the grants, it’s sometimes questionable economically.

Getting the fiber out to some of these more remote rural areas can be tough,” Otis said. Dayton started the task force in 2011 to evaluate how much of the state has high-speed broadband and to make strategies for “border to border” access. Under current federal and state guidelines, homes and businesses should have access to a minimum of 25 megabits-per-second download speeds and at least 3 megabits upload speeds.

The task force said that as of now 88 percent of Minnesota households have that minimum speed. But Otis said those minimum speeds are relatively slow for the growing demands on the internet. “You’d like to say everyone should have 100 (megabits) down and 20 up. And to be perfect you’d have 100 by 100.”

He said that when putting in new lines, having the minimum 25-3 megabit is “underusing your fiber.” And the demand for more speed is only going to grow as more video content, self-driving vehicles, smart cars, enhanced 911 systems, smart homes and other technology all vie for internet and fiber optic space. “The projections are for unbelievable, exponential growth in the next five to 10 years,” Otis said.

NU-Telecom received a £325,000 matching state grant late last year to install fiber optics lines south of Hanska. Another company got £220,000 for a broadband project near Delavan in Faribault County. A multi-year project in Sibley County also received funding in previous years.

The Governor’s Task Force report recommends the Legislature provide £71.5 million in ongoing biennial funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, until the state achieves its broadband goals. That funding amount would eventually provide minimum service to 252,000 households that currently lack it. The group also recommended the Office of Broadband Development get £500,000 in ongoing biennial funding and maintain the existing partnership with the Minnesota Department of Commerce until the state achieves its broadband speed goals.

“Broadband is more important today than ever before and will play an increasingly important role in the lives of Minnesotans for decades to come,” Margaret Anderson Kelliher, chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, said in a statement.

Otis, who is on the board of the Minnesota Telephone Association, said that group supports the ongoing funding recommended in the report.

“It’s a lot easier to plan as a company knowing funding is there on an ongoing basis.”

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