Fast, reliable internet would be a godsend for Al Meyer, a Richland Township farmer who counts on the internet to help him stay in contact with everyone from suppliers to the bank.

If his equipment breaks down, he relies on internet access to fix it, since farm equipment manufacturers don’t print paper manuals anymore. But Meyer’s home internet is far from reliable. Not only does weather frequently disrupt the connection, but trying to connect during peak usage times, usually during the evening, is basically a lost cause.

Even though Minnesota’s approach has been seen as something of a national model, the latest report from the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband shows that progress toward the state’s own broadband goals has been inconsistent — and time is running out to meet them.

Released in time to help set priorities for the 2021 legislative session, the headline of the Broadband Task Force’s latest report is a call for $120 million in funding for high-speed broadband grants over the next biennium.

A $120 million funding bill co-sponsored in the House by Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, and in the Senate by John Jasinski, R-Faribault. Jasinski said the effort is a particularly high priority in the wake of COVID-19. The $120 million figure is roughly twice of what the state has devoted to rural broadband efforts in recent years. The call is so urgent and the ask so big, not only because of COVID, but because Minnesota is in danger of missing its first goal.

Under state law, every household and business must have internet access with download speeds of at least 25mbps per second and upload speeds of at least 3mbps per second by 2022. Those targets make a big jump in 2026, increasing to 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 megabits per second for uploads.

Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said that the latter goal is much more realistic for consumers given the demands of current technology. However, more than 12% of Minnesota residents still don’t have access to broadband that fast.

Rural Broadband Task Force Chair Teddy Bekele, who serves as chief technology officer for Land O’Lakes, said that covering the remaining 157,000 unserved households in Minnesota will be greater a challenge than the raw number might suggest.

The challenge becomes apparent when looking at the map embedded in the Rural Broadband Task Force’s report. Those 157,000 Minnesota households generally live in the most rural and isolated parts of the state, making them the hardest and priciest to reach.

Working in tech at Land O’Lakes, Bekele said he’s met many of those rural farmers who struggle to access the internet, making their business operations all the more difficult.

Currently, most Rice County residents have access to high-speed internet, making the county a somewhat less compelling candidate for broadband dollars. Jim Purfeerst, a newly elected member of the Rice County Board of Commissioners, is among those who do not.

Purfeerst relies on fixed wireless through the air to get his work done, which since COVID hit has included Zoom meetings and other online communication with increasing frequency. While it generally works, just a change in the weather can leave him without the internet.

“If it’s rainy or cloudy, some days it limits your ability to receive a good signal,” he said.

In rural Steele County, the team at Dagry Tooling often struggles with its own connectivity issues. Dagry’s founder and owner Dave Luedtke said that the nearest fiber optic connection is a mile away, so the business relies on a broadband tower. While connectivity is generally pretty solid, Luedtke said that there are still days where the business still struggles with extremely inconvenient connectivity issues — making a reliable broadband connection much preferable.

“Whether it’s due to weather, some type of radio wave interference, there are days we still end up with interruptions,” he said. “(Broadband) would be more reliable unless somebody hit it with a backhoe.”

While Rice and Steele counties still have a ways to go, some rural counties have led the way in ensuring access for all residents. That includes Rock County in rural southwest Minnesota, which even beats out urban Ramsey County with a connectivity rate over 99.9%.

In Rock County, local leaders have worked with state and federal partners to finance and build a high-speed network. That made things easier last fall when COVID hit and telemedicine, telework and online learning all came into vogue.

“There was only one student that didn’t have some type of connectivity, and that was because they were transitioning and moving, and the library bailed them out with a hotspot,” Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre was quoted as saying in the report.

Other rural counties haven’t done so well, including some of Rock County’s neighbors. Across the state, a majority of residents don’t have access to broadband meeting the state’s 2026 goals in nine counties, with Kanabec County in north central the worst. Data collected by the school districts found that for roughly a quarter of students in Kanabec County internet access was either nonexistent or not sufficient for them to participate in online learning, leaving them behind their peers.

Unfortunately, that situation isn’t uncommon.

The Broadband Task Force’s $120 million figure isn’t arbitrary, but based on what the task force believes it will cost to hook up every unserved Minnesotan. While that total cost is projected at $868 million, it’s anticipated that most funding will come from private or federal dollars.

In addition to that topline figure, the commission offered a number of other changes, including additional annual funding to the Office of Broadband Development for programs designed to address inequities in broadband access. In particular, the task force recommends programs to programs to increase “digital fluency” among lower-income and older people and provide targeted grants to help low-income Minnesotans gain reliable access to the internet.

The task force also encouraged the state to streamline the process of getting broadband permits approved. Bekele said that broadband companies too often spend precious time navigating application and permitting processes through multiple state agencies.

“Our short construction season shortens the time frames for development, so the more you can do to expedite the process of getting permits the better,” he said.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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