Minnesota communities with limited access to high-speed internet are getting a boost from the state in the form of $26 million in grant funding for broadband projects.
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and other state officials announced Tuesday that 39 projects will get a share of the money set aside this year for the "Border-to-Border Broadband" grant program.
In addition to the money from the state, the selected projects will also get a combined $34 million in private matches from local communities.
Smith said the grant program, now in its fourth year, is helping to erase a significant divide between areas of greater Minnesota and more densely populated communities with robust high-speed internet access.
Because many providers see little incentive in building in rural areas, she said about 20 percent of Minnesotans still don't have access to what the state considers a minimal internet speed of 25 megabits per second.
"As the market is working, it isn't economically feasible for internet developers to expand into areas where people are living so far apart," she said. "Just as we had to do with rural electrification, the concept here is we all come together and make sure this can happen."
The grants provide up to 50 percent of what local internet providers need to expand service in a particular area, with individual grants of up to $5 million.
This year's recipients are scattered across the state, from Rushford Village in southeast Minnesota, which will get $2 million to help expand service to residents, farmers and medical facilities, to a $1.3 million grant for sparsely populated areas of Kittson, Marshall and Roseau counties in northwest Minnesota.
Officials said most projects will likely be in the planning phase through the winter and internet providers will start building their networks in the fall. Winning projects use a variety of technology, including fiber, cable and wireless systems.
Shawntera Hardy, the state's commissioner of employment and economic development, said expanding high-speed internet service has become an essential tool for expanding businesses across the state.
"Access to broadband is really one of those tools that allows for individuals and communities and businesses to level the playing field to have access to 21st-century speeds in terms of internet," she said.
Gov. Mark Dayton has pushed the Legislature to set aside more money for broadband projects.
Smith said she expects it will continue to be a top priority for the governor in the 2018 legislative session.