May 21—Local legislators across the board are pleased to see state leaders including broadband funding in a recently announced budget framework, even if they differ on how much the state should have spent.
An agreement between the DFL majority in the House, GOP majority in the Senate, and Gov. Tim Walz provides $70 million over the next two years for broadband projects. It's unclear whether that money will come from state or federal sources, but lawmakers agree it's a necessary part of this year's budget talks.
"It's good news for Greater Minnesota because without broadband we just can't compete," said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska.
Several local legislators have worked on broadband issues in recent years as a means to improve the region's quality of life. Rep. Susan Akland, R-St. Peter, and Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, submitted broadband funding bills this spring after the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the need for internet service throughout the state.
"I don't think we can wait for our kids that don't have access to their homework, don't have access to their schooling," Draheim said.
He and Akland both noted the $70 million agreement is more than Walz initially requested for broadband projects earlier this year, but it still falls short of what some lawmakers had hoped.
House Democrats proposed $120 million in state broadband funding over the next two years. That proposal found some support in the Republican-controlled Senate, though several lawmakers hoped federal funding could cover some broadband costs. A Senate agricultural committee proposal eventually set aside $40 million in state funding with up to $80 million in federal funds in 2022 and 2023.
Rep. Luke Frederick, DFL-Mankato, said he was glad to see state leaders emphasize broadband funding in this week's budget framework, but he would have preferred the Legislature allocate $120 million toward broadband to improve internet access in rural areas.
"All of these different aspects, whether we talk about telehealth, whether we talk about distance learning, whether we even talk about the future of transportation, data infrastructure needs to be in place," Frederick said.
Draheim pointed out the state's Office of Broadband Development will likely be swamped with requests as is, while some of the billions of dollars Minnesota is expecting in federal COVID-10 aid will likely go to broadband projects.
In addition, several lawmakers and telecommunications experts note broadband projects have been hampered over the past year by a shortage of construction and network materials.
About 93% of Minnesota households meet the state's broadband access goals of at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 mbps upload speeds by 2022, with 87% of the state meeting the 2026 goal of 100 mbps download and 20 mbps upload speeds.
While it remains to be seen whether broadband funding will go toward wired fiber optic networks or wireless broadband technology, Draheim said he expects the state to pivot away from broadband over the next few years as Minnesota meets its goals.
"We'll be looking at other technology by then," he said.