Gary Evans and Dan Dorman: Greater Minnesota may be used to slow Internet, but it's fed up with slow legislators.
ST. PAUL—In meetings with business and community leaders across Greater Minnesota, we hear the same question over and over: "When are we going to get decent Internet service out here?"
We were optimistic at the start of the legislative session, but it now appears that our state lawmakers' answer to this oft-asked query is, "We don't know, and we don't really care."
Clearly, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators don't fully grasp the level of need and the importance of upgrading broadband in Greater Minnesota. Last week, the jobs committee of the House Republican majority included no funding in its budget for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, a fund-matching program aimed at getting private companies to invest in broadband infrastructure. The DFL-controlled Senate jobs committee put only $17 million into the program.
The governor, who campaigned on the notion of "border-to-border broadband, included only $30 million for broadband in his budget plan, far less than the $200 million recommended by his own task force.
This lack of action on one of the most critical issues for business development and job growth is not just disappointing, it's unacceptable. With a $1.9 billion budget surplus, there is simply no valid reason why Minnesota's leaders can't commit to making a meaningful investment in broadband infrastructure.
High-quality Internet service quickly has become a necessity for every sector from agriculture to retail to health care to education. Furthermore, research has shown that household incomes are higher in areas that have high-speed broadband access, and that an increase of just 4 megabytes per second (mbps) of broadband raises a household's income by $2,100 year.
Despite the proven economic benefits and the desire for high-quality broadband expressed by business leaders and residents throughout the state, broadband access in Greater Minnesota continues to lag far behind the metro area and other states. Only 61 percent of households in Greater Minnesota have access to the low end of the state's broadband goals (established in 2010 as 10-20 mbps download speed/5-10 mbps upload speed), compared with 93 percent of households in the Twin Cities metro area.
That amounts to thousands of businesses and residents who are unable to adequately conduct business, access tele-health services or take classes online.
When the legislative session began in January, the prospect for an increased state investment in broadband looked good. The Legislature laid the groundwork last year by creating the broadband development grant program. Despite a condensed application period, applicants with projects totaling $44 million competed for the $20 million in available funding, proving that the interest is there and the need is great.
With such a large response and the state's bright financial outlook, we were hopeful that more money would be put into the program this year.
In addition, the new House Republican majority, which took control of the House by winning seats in many rural districts, was vocal at the start of the session about its plan to restore balance between Greater Minnesota and the metro area. Greater Minnesota was going to be a priority, House GOP leaders said, not an afterthought.
By eliminating funding for broadband, their vow to help Greater Minnesota has been called into question.
Minnesota is in the midst of an economic upswing. The state's coffers are full, unemployment is low and businesses are growing. If the state fails to invest in broadband, it will cause Greater Minnesota to fall further behind at a time when the governor and legislators should be taking advantage of this rare opportunity to move it forward.
Greater Minnesota may be used to slow Internet, but we're fed up with slow legislators. It's time they stop dragging their feet and start standing up for businesses and residents in Greater Minnesota by making broadband expansion a top budget priority this year.