Broadband expansion pushed by Minnesota DFLers
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota needs to make a substantial investment in broadband Internet infrastructure if students and businesses in rural areas are going to compete with the rest of the nation, DFL lawmakers said Tuesday.
Speaker Paul Thissen said $25 million in the House’s supplemental spending bill would be a down payment on $100 million worth of Internet infrastructure that is needed to better connect Minnesotans.
“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 version of the supplemental budget leaves out broadband funding, something Thissen hopes will change as the bill is considered in conference committee.
A recent study by nonprofit ConnectMN and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development found 93 percent of Twin Cities residents have access to broadband. But just 46 percent of outstate residents have comparable high-speed Internet access.
State Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, and chief sponsor of the broadband infrastructure bill, said the disparity in Internet access puts rural businesses and schools at a disadvantage.
“This bill is really about economic development,” Simonson said.
DFL lawmakers had students from Mora High School describe times they and their classmates struggled to complete assignments because of poor or unavailable Internet access. One of them, Cassidy Carlisle, said high school seniors worried they would be unable to complete college and scholarship applications on time because of limited Internet access.
“If we don’t have the means to get online and quickly do our work we miss a deadline and we miss an opportunity to maybe attend a college we could get into because of slow Internet,” Carlisle said.
Providing schools with adequate Internet infrastructure is not just an issue in Greater Minnesota. Many metro districts are working to improve students’ access to high-speed Internet by expanding networks and investing in new technology.
For example, Lakeville schools spent $1.2 million in 2012 to improve the district’s network and bring wireless connectivity to all district buildings. The investment was made to accommodate the district’s iLearn initiative that included using district funds to purchase iPads for students to use in class.
The infrastructure bill likely wouldn’t benefit metro districts, but an additional $5 million in the House supplemental budget would ensure school leaders wouldn’t need to dip into classroom dollars to pay for high-speed Internet access.
Schools now spend $18 million annually for access from broadband providers. About $9 million is paid for with federal dollars and another $4 million with state funds.
The additional $5 million of new money would fully fund schools’ Internet bills, said state Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, chair of the House Education Finance Committee.
Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, the minority lead on the education finance committee, said GOP lawmakers would rather see most of the proposed spending in the DFL’s supplemental budget scrapped and the money returned to taxpayers. As for Internet infrastructure, Woodard said he worried the state could invest in technology that may soon become obsolete in an ever evolving industry.
“When the state gets involved in this, it never works,” Woodard said. “It sounds great, but the problem is the devil is in the details.”
The $25 million in Internet infrastructure funds would be focused on communities and institutions that provide the biggest return on investment, Simonson said. The grant process would look closely at projects that would improve the lives of residents.
“This is important to all Minnesotans,” Simonson said. “We think the language that we put in the bill provides a higher level of importance on applications that not only provide new (high-speed Internet) service, but will improve things like educational opportunities and access to health care.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.