Anyone who has been outside in the past two weeks will have noticed a drastic change in traffic on our streets and highways. The rush of commuters has slowed to a trickle and the twice-daily rumbling of school buses through neighborhoods has stopped entirely. That traffic has moved from our roads to the internet.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are being asked to work, learn and even receive health care from home. All require a strong internet connection. The reality is, though, that thousands of Minnesotans still don’t have access to reliable, high-speed broadband Internet.
In 2016, the Legislature set two goals of universal access to broadband. Lawmakers wanted minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second (mbps) download and 3 mbps upload by 2022; and 100 mbps download and 20 mbps upload by 2026. As of 2019, the broadband availability maps published by the Department of Employment and Economic Development show that 17% of rural Minnesota households lacked access to service at the 2022 speed goal. That number jumps to 32% for the 2026 goal.
Giving our children a high-quality education has long been a tradition in Minnesota. Now that our children are not at school, we’re seeing a digital divide between those who have broadband and those who do not. Some schools are more able than others to shutter and employ e-learning solutions. It is simply not a viable option for every district in the state. Even though students have connectivity at school, some do not have adequate bandwidth at home to receive and send online curriculum assignments or projects. Students without access are at a distinct disadvantage from students who have access.
This divide is also present in health care. Connecting hospitals with their patients via tablet or other smart device is next to impossible if the patient does not have access to the high-speed broadband and technology that drives telehealth services. With increased broadband and a robust telehealth program, health care providers can treat more patients and give them access to specialists in health care hub sites.
All across the state farmers are getting ready for planting season. Whether big or small, farms are modern businesses that need broadband to access markets, potential customers and real time information about weather patterns. In Minnesota, many of our farmers are competing in an international marketplace. And too many of them aren’t on a level playing field if they’re not connected via broadband.
Small businesses must communicate with government agencies — both state and federal — through the Internet to access resources available to aid them during the pandemic. With limited access, sending large files and other data transfers are difficult, if not impossible.
Significant portions of the state — especially low-density rural areas — lack broadband services and have no practical way to get them. The business case just isn’t there for private providers to justify investing all on their own. In response, the Legislature created the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. It is the premier program of its kind in the country and known as the “Minnesota Model.” It requires a public-private partnership that addresses unserved parts of the state by targeting grants to areas without service.
The Legislature allocated $40 million in last year’s biennial budget to the grant program. However, the Office of Broadband Development received grant applications totaling $70 million. That leaves a $30 million funding gap in the current biennium that needs to be addressed before the Legislature adjourns this year. Significant investment of at least $70 million per biennium in the future is necessary to ensure Minnesota reaches its goal of connecting all Minnesotans on time.
Broadband can no longer be considered a luxury. It is a much-needed utility missing in wide swaths of rural Minnesota.
As we adjust to our new homebound reality, traffic is better measured by megabytes and gigabytes of data passing through networks we once called the information superhighway. But for too many Minnesotans, the sign, as it always has, still reads “road ends.”