It’s getting to be a sad, repetitive tale: crappy Internet for rural populations. Minnesota public officials hope to change that. At both state and federal levels, they’re advocating for greater funding for rural high-speed Internet.
They’ve proposed several ideas to fund rural connectivity. At the state level, Governor Mark Dayton is pushing to use $100 million of the Minnesota government budget surplus for rural broadband projects. In D.C., Congressman Rick Nolan has introduced a bill to provide funding for regional solutions, and Senator Amy Klobuchar is working on a bill for coordinating broadband installation and highway construction. Will any of these ideas work?
Minnesota Budget Surplus
Minnesota’s state government expects a $1.9 billion budget surplus, which presents an opportunity to fund large, one-time investments. The Star Tribune notes that such one-time investments in infrastructure, “especially when infrastructure is defined broadly to include roads, transit, public buildings and broadband capacity,” could prove a welcome idea. Fiber networks have high, up-front construction costs, but they offer next-generation, high-speed connectivity. Depending on what state leaders do, those high construction costs may no longer be a barrier.
With the news of the budget surplus, Governor Dayton renewed his call for $100 million (just 5% of the budget surplus) to improve broadband in rural Minnesota. Last spring, however, state legislators only approved about a tenth of that amount - around $10 million. The year before that, they had only put in $20 million. The money funds competitive grants in which companies and local governments match state dollars to build networks. Promising a “border to border broadband” approach, Dayton continues to push for funding for rural projects, but it is up to state legislators to determine what to do.
Ideas for Regional Solutions from D.C.
Meanwhile in D.C., Congressmen Rick Nolan (D-MN), Jared Huffman (D-CA), and Mike Thompson (D-CA) introduced the Rural Broadband Infrastructure Investment Act. Modeled after the process of rural electrification in the 1930s, the act increases broadband investment from the Rural Utility Service from $25 million to $50 million each year. The legislation reimagines how to promote regional solutions, including grants in addition to loans and loan guarantees.
Minnesota DFL Senator Amy Klobuchar has come out in support of Congressman Nolan’s efforts. In December, she released an opinion piece describing how farming has become high-tech. Some farm-equipment companies describe how they encourage local farmers to go to restaurants or cafes to find high-speed Internet in order to do basic, necessary tasks. She is also working on a bipartisan bill right now to reduce the cost of building infrastructure through a “dig once” policy among state and federal agencies during highway construction.
Remember Rural America
While these ideas are being debated and refined, we cannot forget that rural America - not just rural Minnesota - needs high-speed Internet. Minnesota Congressman Nolan explained:
“Here in rural America, high-speed broadband is essential to our ability to compete - to help start new businesses, create new jobs, attract new people and provide the education and health care services to essential to our quality of life.”