Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Steve Grove and DEED's Office of Broadband Development Executive Director Angie Dickison were joined by seven industry and community advocates from broadband coalitions and nonprofit groups for a discussion on March 30 about the importance of broadband access to economic growth, business vitality, health and education.
This roundtable was part of a broader series of discussions the agency is hosting called "The Next Minnesota Economy," focusing on inclusive economic growth, reskilling our labor market and creating good jobs.
Currently in Minnesota, about 92% of households and businesses have access to internet service that meets or exceeds the minimum definition of broadband (download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least three megabits per second). But that percentage drops to 83% in rural Minnesota. The state has a goal of ensuring that all Minnesota businesses and homes have access no later than 2022 – and access to even higher speeds by 2026.
"Every household and business needs access to high-speed internet, period," said DEED Commissioner Steve Grove. "The Governor has put $50M in his budget to expand our grant programs and help us increase coverage faster. Programs like these are vital to Minnesota's economic recovery from COVID-19."
Minnesota's Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program – recognized as a model in the country – provides up to 50% matching funds to incentivize broadband networks in parts of the state with little or no service available. The COVID-19 Stimulus Legislation provides additional funding for broadband.
"Since 2014, the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program has invested $126 million across Minnesota," said Office of Broadband Development Executive Director Angie Dickison. "These 179 projects have helped connect over 57,000 homes, businesses and farms."
Topics discussed included the economic impact of broadband in Minnesota; the difficulty of reaching everywhere in the state; new and emerging internet technologies; and the importance of considering not only access and speed but also affordability, adoption, and latency (meaning the time it takes to send data and get a response).
"The biggest challenge is the remoteness of some of these communities, houses and businesses…and the fewer people in those spaces, the more difficult is it to make the financial case for independent service providers to reach them," said Vince Robinson, chairman, Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition. "That's what makes programs such as the state's Border-to-Boarder Broadband Grant Program so critical – because these service providers cannot afford to do it on their own."
"We've seen that from an individual household perspective – and from a community perspective – public funds invested in access and adoption really pay off for Minnesota," said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement, Blandin Foundation, and a member of the Governor's Task Force on Broadband. "I'd like to offer the reassurance to Minnesota taxpayers that there is a lot of good data out there that there is a high return on investment in investment in public access and adoption."
Land O'Lakes convened a group of 145 major companies, trade associations and others from across the country to work on closing the digital divide because it impacts not only economic outcomes, but also health care, education, and workforce development outcomes.
"It's not just a luxury anymore, it's absolutely necessary to have this connectivity," said Matt Wohlman, senior director of State and Industry Affairs, Land O'Lakes. "This is not just a rural and urban issue, it's a national security issue, a food issue, an economic development issue and an equity issue."
"If you look at other states, we're so far ahead just because we have Office of Broadband Development and an established grant process," said Brent Christensen, president and CEO, Minnesota Telecom Alliance. "What we can do with federal and state money is we can move that needle faster – and we can move it farther. We are in a position to get this done."
Other participants in the roundtable included:
Anna Boroff, executive director, Minnesota Cable Communications Association
Steve Fenske, general counsel, Minnesota Association of Townships; member, Governor's Task Force on Broadband
Marc Johnson, executive director, East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative; member, Governor's Task Force on Broadband
You can watch a recording of the Broadband roundtable on DEED's YouTube page.