Greater Minnesota broadband: An energizing effort

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 21, 2014 - 5:42 PM

It’s not a twin to the last century’s rural electrification, but it’s a close sibling.

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A scene from 1934, after rural electrification.

It does a Capitol veteran good to see a rookie legislator grab a complicated issue, hustle around the state to learn about it at hearings, and come up with a fresh problem-­solving proposal.

But when Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, told me two months ago that his idea to bring better Internet service to Greater Minnesota involved the creation of a $100 million matching fund, I nearly choked stifling a hoot.

A hundred million? In cash? Nobody gets that much. Certainly not a freshman. Mighty Minneapolis is going to have a tough time getting one-fourth that sum for its prized Nicollet Mall in this year’s bonding bill.

But then Schmit said something about broadband being the 21st century’s version of rural electrification and his proposed fund a philosophical descendant of the REA, and my cynicism began to melt into memories.

Grandma spoke often about the day in the 1940s when electricity finally came to the farm in South Dakota and she could end her daily ritual of washing the kerosene lamp’s sooty glass chimney. (It needed frequent washing to provide enough light for a few cherished minutes of reading after a long day of chores.)

The Rural Electrification Administration, created by Congress in 1935, demonstrated the value of government intervention in the private marketplace for the sake of economic viability in rural America. It provided a legal mechanism and loan financing for the establishment of cooperatives that would affordably bring electricity to the nation’s farms. Electrical service had reached only 10 percent of the rural dwellers in 1930. As a result of REA, it was 50 percent in 1942 and nearly all of them a decade later.

Electricity on the nation’s farms was about a lot more than lights. Eventually, it was about milking machines, water pumps, choppers, refrigeration. It powered heat lamps for Grandma’s broods of baby chicks.

By the same token, high-speed Internet in Greater Minnesota isn’t about entertainment. It’s about participation in the modern economy — agriculture, manufacturing, retail, health care, education. In every realm, robust, affordable Internet service is now essential infrastructure. As of last year, fewer than half of Greater Minnesota dwellers had it.

The broadband proposal that a host of Greater Minnesota advocates are promoting at the Legislature this year isn’t REA’s twin. It’s not intended to lead to a new batch of co-ops, though some might arise. It aims instead to help local jurisdictions work with private Internet providers to hasten broadband’s buildout. The $100 million would fund matching grants, awarded to public-private partnerships via a competitive process administered by the old hands at such things at the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The $100 million number isn’t Schmit’s idea. It’s the recommendation of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, chaired by former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, now CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association. Former Republican Rep. Dan Dorman of Albert Lea is also much involved as executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, a new advocacy force this year.

Schmit, 34, is the eager Senate sponsor of the idea. (His House opposite number is Rep. Erik Simonson of Duluth.) A Red Wing native, Schmit is a public policy wonk with a scientific bent. He was a biology and political science double major at St. John’s University. He caught my eye when, of his own volition, he arranged 18 public meetings throughout the state in November and schooled himself to become the Senate DFL broadband policy expert.

That’s a role that has gone mostly unfilled since the departure of former state Sen. Steve Kelley in 2006. I’d count a rural broadband buildout as one of a number of policy strands that were being gathered at the State Capitol 10 or 12 years ago in hopes of knitting them into a stronger state. Then they were dropped as recession, recurring deficits and partisan discord took hold.

“What we’ve been forced to do … is make short-term decisions about how are we going to get through the next months,” House Speaker Paul Thissen observed a few months ago. With surplus revenues now in forecast, “we can do the job that we really should be doing, which is to ask, ‘What do we want to look like five or ten years from now? And what can we do today to make sure we can get there?’”

Despite that worthy sentiment, Thissen and other DFL leaders have looked out for the near term nicely since the session started, delivering a quick shot of tax relief to thousands of Minnesotans. I hope the state’s long-term needs get their due in what remains of this lawmaking season. I hope legislators see that a state government push for broadband is very much due.

 

Lori Sturdevant, a Star Tribune editorial writer, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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