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Lawmakers have put $20 million toward boosting Internet service in parts of the state where it's unavailable or frustratingly slow.
That's far less than the $100 million first proposed. But "a $20 million down payment is a great start," said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing. "It's going to signal that we're serious about this."
The one-time money will fund grants to build broadband infrastructure. Communities or providers proposing projects must find at least a 50 percent match of local, federal or private dollars.
The legislation prioritizes areas considered "unserved" by the Federal Communications Commission, defined by download speeds less than four megabits per second. But it also allows applications from "underserved" communities. The Minnesota Broadband Task Force estimates that nearly 500,000 Minnesotans don't have Internet with download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second — its definition of broadband.
In a statement praising the legislation, Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, called it a "historic first step … in recognizing that the lack of broadband is crippling rural communities."
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development will set up the grant program after getting input this summer. The application could be finalized by fall, said Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the Office of Broadband Development.
The number of applications will demonstrate how great the need is for speedy Internet, she said. This round of funding could also show lawmakers how they might adjust the program's structure in future years.
And there will be future years, both MacKenzie and Schmit predicted.
"It's on policymakers' radar," MacKenzie said. "They understand this is not a one time and you're done initiative."