Lawmakers Urged to Fund Broadband Upgrade in Minnesota

According to Tim Flaherty, executive director of the Coalition of Greater MN Cities, 54 percent of households in Greater Minnesota don't meet state goals for access to broadband.

by Tim Krohn, McClatchy News Service / April 25, 2014

In pushing for at least $25 million in state funding to expand and improve broadband Internet connections in outstate Minnesota, Tim Flaherty noted that much of the state is far behind goals set by the Legislature — and that those goals are not very lofty in his estimation.

"Everyone but 7 percent of the households in the metro meet state goals. In outstate it's 54 percent that don't meet the goals. And the state goals aren't real ambitious," said Flaherty, executive director of the Coalition of Greater MN Cities.

The access to fairly speedy Internet varies wildly even in rural Minnesota. For example, 96 percent of households in Waseca County have access to the state's goal speed while in Blue Earth County just 18 percent have access to those speeds. 

Bill VanderSluis, director of regulatory affairs at Mankato-based Enventis (formerly HickoryTech), said the state goal numbers are more complex than they might appear. The state minimum goal is for a download speed of 10 Mbps and an upload speed of 6 Mbps. VanderSluis said that virtually all the service Enventis offer is 10 Mbps or higher on the download side but less than the 6 Mbps upload.

(Download speeds refer to how fast things are downloaded to your computer — be it from a web site you're visiting or a video you are watching. Uploads speeds come into play if you're uploading photos or a video to, say, YouTube. Because most people spend a lot more time downloading, Internet providers have generally designed systems that give faster downloads than uploads.)

"If you look at Minnesota as a whole, over 98 percent (of households) have 10 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up today," VanderSluis said.

Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater MN Partnership, a former state representative and tire store owner in Albert Lea, said their interest in better broadband is purely for economic development reasons. "We heard from businesses in all parts of the state about the need for better Internet service.

"We don't look at this as updating Facebook or watching Netflix but for its value for economic development," said Dorman, who along with Flaherty held a telephone press conference Thursday.

A recent report by the Governor’s Broadband Task Force concluded the state is not on track to meet the goal set by the Legislature that calls for higher speed deployment to all residents and businesses no later than 2015.

This week, House Speaker Paul Thissen touted the $25 million in the House's supplemental spending bill that would go toward Internet infrastructure.

"As we traveled around the state there was clear interest in this," Thissen said at a news conference with students and educators. "It's one of the first things that people talk about."

The Senate's supplemental budget has nothing for broadband funding.

"The fate rests with the Minnesota Senate. They have been totally silent on this issue," Flaherty said, adding that they will be lobbying those senators in coming days and weeks.

The coalition had been pushing for $100 million for broadband expansion and upgrades. Gov. Mark Dayton supports funding but hasn't given a specific figure he'd like to see. Dayton Thursday said he was open to spending $100 million more of the state's surplus in the supplemental budget and said some should go toward broadband. But Flaherty said it's not clear if Dayton was suggesting more should be added beyond the $25 million figure in the House bill.

VanderSluis said that part of the debate taking place in the Legislature is how best to spend public money on broadband. "Should we be looking at increasing speeds first or should be be looking at (adding) availability for those who have no service at all?" He said that while faster speeds are always a goal, the telecom industry believes public money should go first to unserved areas rather than increasing speeds in areas that already have service.

Enventis was involved in the Greater Minnesota Broadband Initiative, in which it was awarded a nearly $15 million federal grant and invested more than $6 million of its money to build high-capacity fiber networks from the Twin Cities to Duluth and from Brainerd to Moorhead, connecting healthcare facilities, schools, libraries, businesses and households.

The three-year project, completed in 2013, connected 36 rural communities in 23 counties.

©2014 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.)