Lawmakers to propose $100M to bring broadband to the borders

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2014 - 11:25 PM

Nearly 500,000 households still lack high-speed Internet.

More than 70 miles northeast of Duluth and another six from Schroeder, Minn., the Internet gets iffy.

Tina McKeever knew when she moved there from the Twin Cities that she’d have fewer options. But she didn’t expect that to work remotely, she’d have to pick between pokey ISDN and slower dial-up. No broadband, no wireless. Satellite wouldn’t sync with her system.

“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” McKeever said.

Despite a goal to put broadband in the hands of all residents by next year, a quarter of households — nearly 500,000 — still don’t have it, a new report from the Minnesota Broadband Task Force shows. Minnesota also will likely miss its goal to land in the top five states nationwide for access to speedy Internet by 2015. Today, the state ranks just 23rd in broadband availability.

Some lawmakers say that after years of goals, it’s time to spend state money to fix the problem.

This week, Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, will announce a bill that would create a $100 million matching grant program to help build broadband infrastructure.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Schmit said. “We’re ready for action.”

The task force estimates that the competitive grants — funded with surplus dollars and matched by private, local or federal funds — could connect more than 100,000 households to Internet with download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second, its definition of broadband.

“It’s the perfect place to spend one-time dollars,” said Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the group’s chairwoman.

But the proposal has detractors. The conservative Freedom Foundation of Minnesota argues that there’s been no shortage of public funding thrown at broadband in recent years.

“What we see too often is that public investment doesn’t go to unserved areas — in fact, it goes to areas that already have incumbent providers,” said Jonathan Blake, the group’s vice president.

“Having government in the business of competing with private companies is a waste of taxpayer money.”

In one city, an outrage

Kelliher and other public officials say that speedy Internet has become as essential as electricity or telephone service and communities without it will fall behind. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar recently called it “the infrastructure challenge of our generation.”

Connecting rural areas is expensive and the government ought to step in when private businesses won’t, they say. It’s trickier when the service exists but residents don’t think it’s good enough.

Every so often in Annandale, Minn., the Internet stops working. Shops can’t swipe credit cards. Nurses can’t access patient records. Pharmacies can’t fill prescriptions.

A recent study there showed that 82 percent of residents surveyed — more than nine out of 10 who use Windstream Communications — were dissatisfied with their Internet provider.

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