‘Everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable world-class broadband networks that enable us to survive and thrive in our communities and across the globe.”

This vision for universal broadband access for Minnesota was forged by nearly 200 community leaders from across the state last November. It struck a chord; a growing chorus throughout the state endorses it, including cities, counties, nonprofits, associations and telecom providers.

The problem is, as basic as this vision sounds, Minnesota still is far from meeting it. Yes, we have access to world-class, high-speed Internet in parts of the state (Minnesota’s best-covered six counties have more than 99 percent broadband coverage). But the bottom 13 counties still have less than 50 percent coverage. Many businesses and households still depend on dial-up.

According to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, nearly a quarter of rural Minnesota households lack speeds necessary to do online homework, run an online business or use budding telehealth options.

This stark urban-rural divide hurts all Minnesotans. When students can’t do homework and patients can’t access telehealth support, we all pay the consequences. It’s time to look at investing together in solutions — because Minnesota is falling behind. In a national ranking of broadband access, Minnesota ranks 23rd.

“Minnesota should be looking at the rest of the country in its rearview mirror,” said Harvard Law School Prof. Susan Crawford during our Border to Border Broadband conference in November. Crawford could see that Minnesota has many broadband heroes and that funding programs and public will are building, but we can and must do better, faster.

The “Vision for Broadband in Minnesota” calls on all of us to step up our efforts to bring the benefits of a broadband-enabled future to all Minnesotans by incorporating the vision’s four key concepts:

Everyone — urban, rural, suburban; resident, student, business owner, worker, traveler.

Affordable — at a household and community level, even for remote communities with sparse populations.

World class — wired and wireless connectivity that allow us to be globally competitive.

Survive and thrive — provide access to health care, education and economic vitality.

Minnesota’s communities have the leadership needed to make the vision real. Even in the most remote parts of our state, communities have proved to themselves and to each other that they can set ambitious broadband access and use goals, and build the partnerships to meet those goals, so they don’t settle for slower, less connected futures.

Itasca County, Blandin Foundation’s home, made the case for broadband build-out across three rural townships, leading to a $5.5 million public-private project to bring gigabit speed to 1,250 households and businesses never served before.

Red Wing Ignite is building a culture of innovation among existing and aspiring tech entrepreneurs by tapping the power of their gigabit network through events for local technologists, tech internships, new STEAM education opportunities in the schools and more.

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has forged a partnership with the Northeast Service Cooperative to get band members the access they need to thrive in a connected world.

Patty Bauchard, an official in Morrison County’s Ripley Township, summed up our challenge well in remarks to the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband: “It is extremely important that the people who live in rural Minnesota have just the same sort of access as those who live in town.”

It’s time we act as a state to ensure that “everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable world-class broadband networks that enable us to survive and thrive in our communities and across the globe.” Achieving the vision that Minnesotans say they want for themselves and their children will require leadership, investment and cooperation at all levels.

 

Kathleen Annette is president and CEO of the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids.