While technology quickly changes the world, some in rural parts of Minnesota are at a disadvantage, still without access to a reliable internet connection.
The Minnesota Office of Broadband Development estimates that about 90 percent of rural Minnesota households have access to non-mobile broadband (an internet connection other than that from a cell phone). State Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, who represents Northfield, Le Sueur County and surrounding areas, has drafted bills this session to continue efforts to combat the problem.
“It’s a pretty bipartisan issue,” he said. “There is a little disconnect between metro and outstate, but overall it’s bipartisan.”
One of Draheim’s bills, a proposal to fund the Border to Border Broadband program with an additional $35 million, he expects to pass through the Legislature. He doesn’t expect a second bill, which would initiate a pilot program to expand satellite broadband, to pass.
He said the Office of Broadband Development is pretty much maxed out with what it can do at $35 million per year. The Border to Border program helps extend wireline broadband to households throughout the state. That involves a physical connection to residences and businesses via fiber optic cable. The state office estimates about 80 percent of rural households have access to wireline broadband.
So with about 10 percent of rural households without a satisfactory internet connection, that leaves about 10 percent getting their broadband from something other than wireline. Draheim said he wants to see more use of alternative broadband options to reach the remaining outstate Minnesota households. That’s why he proposed the pilot program to expand satellite broadband options.
“The (fiber optic companies) pick where they do and don’t go to (with wireline broadband),” he said. “They apply for a grant from the state and they kind of pick where they’re going, which often leaves people out.”
He added, “My bill would be looking at options outside of fiber optic. There are other technologies and I think we’re shortchanging ourselves.”
He indicated, though, that prospects for his satellite bill appear bleak, and he was unsure if other legislators had proposed their own bills advocating for alternatives to fiber optic.
Regardless, the $35 million he proposed for the Border to Border program is likely to pass, and areas in his district may benefit. According to the Office of Broadband Development, about 24 percent of Le Sueur County households (2,544) are not served by wireline broadband. Rice County is well served, according to the state, but about 7 percent of households (1,343) still don’t have wireline access.
The office does not indicate how many of the households without wireline broadband have access to another kind of broadband. The state figures suggest about half of those without wireline are able to utilize an alternative.