A new state grant fund is bolstering 17 projects to build speedier Internet, with its biggest awards focused on the state’s far reaches.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development announced $19.4 million in grants to help bring broadband to areas that have slow service or none.
“Just like businesses and homes need power and water to function, they need broadband to function,” Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said Monday. “Broadband isn’t just nice — it’s necessary.”
The agency says the money will connect 6,095 households, 83 institutions and 150 businesses that don’t have access to Internet with download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second, the state’s definition of broadband.
The grants range from $105,000 to $5 million. The biggest goes to the Rock County Broadband Alliance, which will bring fiber service to all unserved and underserved areas of the county, in the state’s far southwest corner. The $19.4 million will be matched by $26.5 million in private investment, said Katie Clark Sieben, DEED commissioner.
Many of the winning proposals came from private telecom companies pledging to improve service, including CenturyLink and Mediacom. The Halstad Telephone Co. plans to invest $1.7 million toward the $3.3 million project to bring broadband to 249 locations without service in Polk County, including farms.
The one-time, $20 million grant fund was created by the Legislature last year — a win for broadband advocates, despite being less than they had requested. As part of his budget, released in January, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed spending $30 million for another round of grants. That $10 million increase would be “significant,” Sieben said, especially for a new program.
But some conservative groups question if the state should fund projects where private companies already operate. Annette Meeks, CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, argues that state money ought to be used only in parts of the state where there is no service whatsoever.
“It seems like that should be our priority, rather than overbuilding,” Meeks said.
About 22 percent of Minnesota households lack access to broadband, not counting mobile service, according to a recent report. Just 63 percent of outstate Minnesota homes have access to speedy service. In January, the Federal Communications Commission dramatically revised its definition of broadband — setting it at 25 megabits a second for downloads and 3 megabits a second for uploads. The previous benchmark was 4 and 1 megabits per second.
A report found that more than half of rural Americans don’t have broadband access under the new standard.
Minnesota’s broadband goals and benchmarks expire at the end of 2015. A governor’s task force is re-evaluating those numbers. The fact that the FCC has elevated its definition will influence that discussion, Sieben said.