A grateful state House GOP majority was expected to exhibit special concern for Greater Minnesota this year. Ten of the 11 seats the Republicans wrested from the 2013-14 DFL majority in last fall’s election sit outside the metro area.
That backdrop makes the new House majority’s refusal to continue a year-old broadband Internet development program a curious show of parsimony. That program dispensed matching grants to both public and private Internet providers whose projects would bring broadband to unserved or underserved portions of the state — all of which are outside the metro area. Broadband expansion is a top priority for Greater Minnesota advocates this session.
Those advocates considered last year’s $20 million allotment meager. It generated 44 applications and $19.4 million in grants to 17 projects. Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget for 2016-17 would give the program a $30 million infusion. Rural advocates expected House Republicans to see that bid and raise it.
Instead, the House economic development funding bill would kill the grant program and eliminate the state Office of Broadband Development. That move is grounded in concern about changing technology, not free-market philosophy, GOP committee chair Pat Garofalo explained. Broadband technology is rapidly shifting from fiber-based to wireless delivery mechanisms that will lead to better coverage at lower cost. State grants for one kind of technology may slow the arrival of another, Garofalo said. “The private sector won’t invest if it senses that the government is coming in with something else,” he said.
He’s right about the rapid pace of change in telecommunications. But his message to the parts of Greater Minnesota that are waiting for broadband seems to be “wait a little longer and trust the market to deliver.”
That message can’t be well-received in the 24 counties where, as of late last year, fewer than 50 percent of households had access to the Internet at speeds greater than 10 to 20 megabits per second download/5 to 10 megabits per second upload. They’ve been waiting for more than a decade for the market to deliver.
In those places, Minnesotans’ ability to obtain medical care via telemedicine, manage farm marketing, take a college class online, start a business that serves distant clients, and generally engage in 21st-century commerce and culture is compromised every day by inadequate Internet service.
The grant program that the House bill would end is not specific to any particular technology. It’s available to any project that can offer reliable, affordable service at high speed. Those criteria favored fiber-based projects in the initial grantmaking round, but wireless projects are welcome to compete.
Legislators should review those criteria to assure that the grant program is innovation’s ally, not impediment. But they should not walk away from efforts to secure broadband’s benefits for every Minnesotan. The Office of Broadband Development should survive and continue to help pay for projects that would stretch broadband’s reach. Greater Minnesota residents who crave better Internet service should make their voices heard in St. Paul now.