More than two dozen greater Minnesota communities will split $11 million in state funding awarded Friday to increase broadband Internet access, a move that proponents hail as a key statewide economic development initiative.
The latest round of broadband grants will improve high-speed broadband access for 3,222 households, 786 businesses and nearly 90 other community institutions, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. But it only goes partway toward addressing the need.
Forty-four requests for rural broadband support totaled $29 million — nearly three times the available funding. Subsidies for better Internet access were a lightning-rod issue at the Capitol in the last legislative session, where mostly Republican critics balked at the price of hardwired infrastructure upgrades.
But Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration will push the issue when lawmakers head back to the Capitol in March, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said at a rural broadband conference in St. Louis Park on Friday. Schools, businesses and health care providers need it to compete and grow in today’s marketplace, she said.
“High-speed Internet access is a foundation for economic success everywhere in our state,” Smith said. “It isn’t just nice. It’s necessary.”
In its first year, the program doled out $19.4 million to 17 communities in greater Minnesota. Katie Clark Sieben, who heads up DEED, said the agency is proud of its contributions so far but the gap in fiber Internet access across the state is still too wide and additional resources are “urgently needed.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat whose district covers northeast Minnesota, said at the Friday conference he would continue to push for federal action on rural broadband — a project he estimated carries a $50 billion price tag. But over time, he said, wide-reaching economic stimulus would offset that cost.
Already, he has spearheaded an initiative that would reallocate certain funds into a central pool in the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would serve as a clearinghouse for broadband improvement efforts. It’s a similar model to the ones used to spread electricity and telephone access into rural areas.
“This is our 21st century communications system and if you don’t have it you’re in trouble,” Nolan said. “People need to think big.”
In some greater Minnesota communities, targeted initiatives have sprouted in recent years to drive up broadband access and use it to boost business and education opportunities.
Red Wing, about an hour’s drive southeast of the Twin Cities, was among the first rural zones in the nation to look for ways to leverage evolving technology to grow its business community in a new direction.
Programming is designed to increase technological innovation and entrepreneurship in the Mississippi River town, said Neela Mollgaard, executive director of Red Wing Ignite, one of 25 local programs across the country tied to a bigger White House initiative called US Ignite.
Like other economic development groups pushing broadband access in greater Minnesota, the Red Wing project focuses on a range of programming — from coding classes in public schools to helping startups find cash — aimed at building a platform for tech-oriented growth.
“Especially in rural America, it’s not a booming entrepreneurial area,” Mollgaard said. “We really are trying to create this ecosystem from the beginning.”
To the northwest, an economic development group in the Brainerd Lakes region leveraged budding broadband access to launch a similar effort to attract more tech companies and beef up the skilled workers that can staff those outfits.
Though it sits more than 120 miles from the Twin Cities, the area already has 21 high-tech companies, according to the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. To keep them growing, the group has partnered with local colleges to develop tech training programs and certificates.
“We’re not Silicon Valley but we’ve got a lot of smart people,” said Sheila Haverkamp, the group’s executive director. “We know we have to work to attract high-end talent.”
A partially state-funded cooperative, RS Fiber, plans to invest $45 million to bring fiber Internet access to more than 6,200 homes, businesses and farms in Sibley and Renville counties southwest of the Twin Cities. Project champion Mark Erickson said the long-term commercial growth that comes with better connectivity will help stabilize rural populations across the region.
Erickson, who also serves as economic development director for the city of Winthrop, said the promise of fiber already helped draw an osteopathic school to nearby Gaylord.
But despite the upside touted by broadband proponents, it’s been an uphill fight to find the funding needed to outfit rural communities — particularly farm towns — with the technology.
Stiff competition for state funding choked out more support for broadband in the last legislative session, and when lawmakers return to the Capitol next year they’ll have a smaller surplus to pull from. Still, they’ll face the same strains to balance development support with tax relief and other programming.
That makes for a frustrating climate where the technology is just out of reach, Mollengaard said.
“I see laying fiber and all this connectivity like laying nice new highways, but we’re still walking,” she said. “This is the new model of economic development. It’s not a bunch of storefronts with awnings.”