A year ago, the COVID-19 outbreak turned telecommuting and remote learning into an overnight necessity for millions of Americans.
But millions more whose rural communities don’t have high-speed broadband infrastructure found themselves on the outside looking in, cut off from the tools that the rest of the country relied on to cope with this unprecedented emergency.
Until a few years ago, the city of Annandale, Minnesota, located in the “Heart of the Lakes,” found itself among the last to receive access to reliable internet services. But over the last five years, significant investments from the region’s cable provider, with help from a bipartisan state grant broadband program designed to spend taxpayer dollars wisely, brought high-speed broadband infrastructure to the town.
As Congress works to accelerate broadband deployment in rural America, Annandale’s story, in the Sixth Congressional District that I represent, offers a useful roadmap for how we can solve problems in broadband policy and beyond. It’s a case study of private investment in infrastructure and jobs, teamed with targeted public spending to fill the gaps, producing real results.
Before 2016, broadband service in Annandale was spotty at best. The fastest speeds available didn’t even meet the Federal Communication Commission’s official definition of “broadband,” and local networks got so congested in the afternoons and evenings that small business owners couldn’t even process credit card transactions.
This all changed when the area’s cable provider, Midco, invested in building a high-speed network in Annandale in 2016 and then expanded again in 2018 to reach even more homes and businesses northeast of downtown. These projects brought world-class internet speeds to the small lakefront town of 3,300 residents, about an hour’s drive northwest from Minneapolis.
Local business owners could finally compete on equal terms with competitors in larger cities and suburbs. The hotels and B&Bs at the heart of the town’s tourism economy could finally advertise high-speed connectivity to prospective visitors, who come here to unwind but not always to unplug completely. School-aged students could finally log on after school to do homework without worrying whether a neighbor watching Netflix might slow their own connection to a crawl.
These advances were game-changing for the community – and they became nothing short of life-saving when COVID-19 arrived. The new broadband infrastructure helped the town manage the transition to remote learning, telecommuting, and telemedicine in ways that just wouldn’t have been possible a few years earlier.
Now, Annandale’s experience offers a roadmap we can follow to connect more unserved rural communities across the United States.
It starts with encouraging more private investment in broadband networks.
While the country’s utility-regulated electricity and water sectors have faced chronic underinvestment for years, broadband has been a happier story. Nearly $2 trillion in private investment over the past 25 years, encouraged by a light regulatory touch, has built world-class networks that now reach 96% of Americans.
Midco’s 2016 initial entry into Annandale was funded entirely by private capital after local leaders partnered closely with the company to plan the expansion.
But it was clear that private investment alone would not solve the problem. Like in many rural areas, lower population densities meant it cost a lot more per-home to build broadband infrastructure. And where private capital isn’t enough to wire a given area, that’s where public funding can help fill the gap.
In Annandale, for example, a $537,000 state grant – matched by equivalent private funding – built the town’s 2018 broadband expansion project, bringing high-speed service to an additional 600 homes. Notably, Minnesota’s Broadband Grant Program encourages all broadband providers to apply, instead of putting a finger on the scale for specific companies or technologies; the result is more competition and more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.
In Washington, lawmakers in both parties recognize that federal funding is needed to accelerate rural broadband buildout. Annandale’s broadband success story offers a roadmap.
As society increasingly turns digital to adapt to the effects of COVID-19, we need to prioritize federal funding to the unserved areas where the needs are greatest. We need to embrace partnerships – getting more out of taxpayers’ dollars by partnering them with private capital.
And we need to make sure these programs are open to all providers, and all types of broadband technology, so the best solutions can compete against each other to solve our toughest rural challenges.
Connecting rural America will be a defining national challenge over this decade. It’s a goal that transcends party lines, especially now as the necessity of broadband connectivity for people’s livelihoods only accelerates. Annandale’s experience offers a glimpse into what’s possible when we work together.
Tom Emmer, a Republican, represents Minnesota’s Sixth District in the U.S. House of Representatives.