Minnesota spent tens of millions of dollars expanding high-speed broadband internet in recent years, but nearly $1.4 billion in public and private investment is still needed to get access to all households, according to a state task force report.
Gov. Mark Dayton's broadband task force released its final report Thursday. The panel urged lawmakers to designate $35.7 million annually in ongoing funds to expand broadband access. Without broadband, it is difficult for businesses to compete in today's economy, the report said. And schools and health care providers that lack high-speed access — particularly in rural Minnesota — struggle to serve residents.
"We have made a lot of progress in the state. There is more to be done," said Margaret Anderson Kelliher, chairwoman of the task force. "This is a solvable problem for Minnesotans, and it gets us to more success for people."
The task force called for more money for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program, which matches local or private broadband spending with state dollars. Seventy applicants competed for the $20 million available through the program last year.
It is the first of its kind in Minnesota, Kelliher said, and over the past four years it helped provide broadband to 34,000 households and 5,200 businesses. However, 252,000 households across the state still do not have broadband access that meets state standards for upload and download speeds.
The task force's goal is to connect all of those households by 2022. The $1.4 billion price tag to meet that goal would be covered by a variety of sources, including federal, state and local funding and private companies.
In November, state officials forecast a $188 million budget deficit over the next year and a half. Given that outlook, the task force's financial request "is a little daunting," said Kelliher, a DFLer who once served as speaker of the Minnesota House and now is president and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association.
The report is a good conversation starter, said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. The next state revenue and expenditure forecast in February will help determine what's affordable, he said.
"That being said, I think they're on the right path," Kresha said of the task force. "Certainly we don't want to stop the great work we've done for rural broadband. And if there [are] any opportunities to continue to expand efforts — whether that's through policy, funding or innovation — we should do it."
Politicians from both parties have made rural broadband a priority. President Donald Trump signed an executive order this week promoting broadband access.
Medical professionals are relying on broadband to tackle another bipartisan issue: the opioid crisis. Rural health care providers use broadband to supplement in-person visits. Patients who are being weaned off prescription opioids have video check-ins with pharmacists, said task force member Maureen Ideker, a senior adviser at Essentia Health.
"In our rural areas of Minnesota there's just not enough pharmacists for people to go in to get that service," Ideker said.
Rock County, in Minnesota's southwest corner, received a big grant through the Border to Border program, task force member Jody Reisch said. Reisch, a Rock County commissioner who lives in Luverne, said his internet used to be horrible.
Now it's easier for his sons to do schoolwork, he can teleconference with co-workers and his wife, an accountant, can work from home, he said. Livestock farmers, who gather data on feed rations, have told him it has made their lives easier. And Reisch said elderly residents are able to use medical alert systems and stay in their homes longer.
Reisch, a Republican, said he hopes Minnesota's next governor will consider the panel's analysis and continue the task force.