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OUR OPINION: Don’t give up on broadband fund

Gov. Mark Dayton did not give rural Minnesota the broadband money it needs. But he did give it the next best thing:

A roadmap for getting the money next time around.

In its 2014 report, the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband recommended that Minnesota launch a Broadband Infrastructure matching-grant fund with $100 million in seed money. A Red Wing, Minn., lawmaker has announced a bill that would use a portion of Minnesota’s $1.2 billion surplus to do just that.

Then, when Gov. Mark Dayton released his plan for the surplus last week, money for tax cuts and the budget reserve were on his list, but money for high-speed Internet infrastructure was not.

The governor did, however, say two encouraging words.

The first was that he still recognizes the issue’s importance and its need for state support. “I wanted to see border-to-border cell phone and high-speed Internet coverage by the end of my first term,” Dayton told the Star Tribune.

“We are going to fall short of that, but that still is my goal.”

The second was his suggestion that if the fund’ supporters more effectively describe their plan, there’s a good chance that at some point, he’ll budget for it.

“The governor said he did not put broadband money in his Thursday budget plan because people who want to increase coverage and speed have asked for up to $100 million, but have not spelled out specific details about how the money would be used,” the Strib reported.

So, Job 1 for the fund’s supporters is to take those words to heart and to document exactly what infrastructure they expect the money to be buy.

The need for this infrastructure work is clear. Minnesota, which takes pride in its No. 1 ranking on a great many indicators, ranks only in the middle of the 50 states on statewide broadband access, wrote Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership and a former Republican state representative, and Margaret Anderson Kelliher, chairman of the Governor’s Broadband Task Force and a former Speaker of the Minnesota House, in a recent op-ed.

And “this is not just about bragging rights,” Dorman and Kelliher wrote.

“Statewide access to reliable, fast broadband technology is absolutely vital to the future of our state. Approximately 71 percent of households in the state currently have access to wired broadband with download speeds of greater than 10 megabits per second, and only 46 percent of households in Greater Minnesota have that kind of coverage.

“However, if 95 percent of Minnesotans could access top-quality broadband, it would have a $1 billion positive impact on the state’s gross domestic product, according to data from the Strategic Networks Group.”

These days, American businesses ranging from coffee shops to convenience stores to computer-software giants rely on high-speed Internet links. Think about that and about how lighting up a fiber-optic connection in a small Minnesota town could boost the productivity of every business along Main Street, and you’ll see that the estimated $1 billion boost to Minnesota’s GDP might be a very realistic guess.

Dayton’s keeping the fund out of his budget is a setback, but not a permanent one. Supporters should take the governor’s hint, redraft their proposal with scrupulous attention to detail, and resubmit it with some confidence that it’ll find a sympathetic ear.