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Push continues for broadband funding

WILLMAR, Minn. -- With just two weeks left in the legislative session, there is both optimism and concern about whether state money will be allocated to fund the expansion of broadband Internet service in rural Minnesota.

The answer will “come to a head” in the next couple of weeks, said Tim Flaherty, an attorney from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, during a conference call Thursday with reporters.

Flaherty said the coalition has been working “very hard all session” to persuade legislators to approve funding for broadband, following a recommendation by the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband to provide $100 million to expand the state’s Internet infrastructure to “unserved’ and “underserved” areas.

Flaherty said the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is pleased the House has approved $25 million and was buoyed by news Thursday that Gov. Mark Dayton is willing to spend another $100 million in reserves for a variety of state projects, including broadband.

The sobering news is that the Senate has been “totally silent” and has not taken action on broadband funding, Flaherty said.

The future of broadband legislation “now rests with the Minnesota Senate,” he said. “It’s really in their hands.”

Lobbyists from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and the Greater Minnesota Partnership will be stepping up efforts in the final days of the session to persuade state senators to fund broadband expansion.

They hope the public will do the same.

“We need to convince them of the importance of broadband to our economic growth,” Flaherty said.

Dan Dorman, executive director for the Greater Minnesota Partnership and a former GOP legislator, said he has seen a shift in how Republican lawmakers are viewing the proposed broadband funding. He said not everybody supports it, but there is no caucus position against it.

According to the Governor’s Task Force, Minnesota ranks 23rd in the nation for broadband speeds.

And while 93 percent of the Twin Cities metro area meets the low range of state goals for Internet speed, just 46 percent of Greater Minnesota meets those goals, according to statistics from Connect Minnesota, which collects data from Internet providers and creates state maps of broadband availability.

That means 54 percent of Greater Minnesota doesn’t meet the lower end of the state goals, said Flaherty, adding that the goals aren’t overly ambitions. “It’s not a pie in the sky thing,” he said.

William Hoffman of Connect Minnesota said in a telephone interview that there is a statewide trend for increased broadband availability, in part because of expanding service by providers.

Updated data collected over the last six months will be released in May.

“Some counties have changed significantly,” Hoffman said.

Having access to high-speed broadband Internet is crucial for economic development, education, health care, small businesses and families, Flaherty and Dorman said during the teleconference.

What’s available now in Greater Minnesota is not “robust” enough and is nowhere close to adequate for the future, Dorman said.

The demand for broadband is an “inescapable” component of living in the modern age, Hoffman said. “We need to make sure we’re not being left behind.”

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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