The story went viral, so you may have heard about the Washington Post writer who last year called Minnesota’s Red Lake County “America’s worst place to live” and this year is moving there. After visiting the place he offended, Christopher Ingraham was so charmed that he and wife, Briana, decided to relocate from Baltimore County, Md. (If you missed the story, it’s at tinyurl.com/z4xyux8.)
Red Lake County’s biggest draw was an end to Ingraham’s 90-minute each-way daily commute. He craves more time with his 2-year-old twin sons. But here’s what he said made his move possible: “The most important tools of my trade are a phone line and a good Internet connection. You can download arcane government data sets just as well from Minnesota as from D.C.”
We hope that proves true for Ingraham. (Indeed, Red Lake County is among the best-served rural counties in the state.) But in too many places, it’s not. As of February, one in five Greater Minnesota households still lacked access to Internet speeds of at least 10 megabits per second download and 5 mbps upload, the goal set in law in 2010. Those speeds are now impossibly slow for many applications. The new download standard recommended by the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband is 25 mbps — a speed that as of last year was available in only 47 percent of the state’s rural areas.
The good news is that the 2016 Legislature seems willing and able to do something about that. A bipartisan consensus is emerging to direct a hefty portion of this year’s state surplus to a two-year-old matching grant program that has proved to be an effective prod for rural broadband expansion.
That’s a welcome change from last year, when key Republican House members resisted keeping the program alive and finally consented to putting just $11 million toward broadband grants. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has recommended adding $100 million to the program this year. We favor an addition of at least half that size. The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, is at $35 million, but he says it could grow as the session progresses.
The worrisome news is that a tussle has emerged among advocates of broadband about what should take precedence in grant allocations — aid for the “unserved” or the “underserved.” Should state funds be directed at providing connections where they are lacking or boosting service in places where speeds meet the 2010 state standards but are insufficient for today’s commercial, medical and educational needs?
We hope the answer is “both.” Both situations represent a failure of the private marketplace, which justifies state action. But legislators could design the grant program to require a larger local government and/or private-sector match for projects to improve existing service, while offering a richer match for the remaining unserved portions of the state.
The other worry is that despite growing legislative support, a boost for broadband grants could still get stuck in the partisan logjam that snagged major bills last year and has yet to give way. That would be a sorry fate for what some advocates are calling the most important Greater Minnesota economic development bill of the year. That’s why legislators would do well to keep broadband in a stand-alone bill, rather than including it in an omnibus measure laden with more controversial provisions. Legislators, especially those from Greater Minnesota, deserve the chance to vote on a clean broadband bill — and their constituents deserve the chance to hold them accountable for their votes.