Mankato Free Press

By Trey Mewes

Telecommunications experts are happy to hear Congress is interested in broadband funding, but they say any federal dollars needs to be spread out over several years to make the most impact.

That’s the message state broadband advocates and industry leaders gave to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar Wednesday, the same day President Joe Biden unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that includes a Klobuchar-backed proposal to spend $100 billion on broadband projects throughout the U.S.

Industry leaders say Minnesota’s broadband access is growing on its own — a combination of federal, state and community funds has spurred projects throughout the state over the past 10 years — but federal action could mean better access far quicker than what internet service providers could normally accomplish.

“If nothing else, the pandemic showed us how much we need rural broadband,” said Brent Christensen, president and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance.

Minnesota is already set to receive $1.2 billion in federal funding from 2016 through 2028 for rural broadband projects, according to Christensen. About one in six rural households in Minnesota doesn’t have broadband internet that meets the state’s 2022 goal of 25 megabits per second downloads and 3 mbps uploads. About 24% of rural households don’t meet the goal of 100 mbps downloads by 20 mpbs uploads by 2026.

Locally, about a quarter of Watonwan County isn’t adequately served by broadband providers. About 31% of Sibley County doesn’t have adequate broadband service, while 16% of Nicollet County, 15% of Blue Earth County, 22% of Waseca County, 26% of Martin County, 23% of Le Sueur County and 8% of Faribault County are either unserved or underserved.

Christensen and other advocates say providers are working to address those disparities during the next few years by planning more wired fiber-optic networks. While those projects are more expensive than installing wireless broadband options, industry experts say wired connections are more reliable and better prepared for future technology.

In Madelia, where Christensen runs the local communications company, the community is set to build a fiber optic network to every home.

Bill Eckles, the CEO of Blue Earth-based BEVCOMM, said the south-central Minnesota internet provider has about half of its customers served through a fiber optic network. The company plans to have all of its customers served through wired broadband connections in seven years, and all of the farms BEVCOMM serves in the next three years.

Those projects need sustained funding, Christensen said. Broadband providers in Minnesota have a short construction season each year and many building supplies for broadband networks are in high demand, making them difficult to find.

“Whatever we do needs to be spread out over a longer term, over a couple years, so we have a chance to plan and order and get stuff in,” he said.

Christensen said he recently ordered supplies in September for a project in St. James only to get them in February. Christensen also pointed out potential issues getting federal money to states. While Minnesota has a state Office of Broadband Development, other states may not be as well-equipped to process federal funding for providers.

Klobuchar said she’s recently heard national experts hold up Minnesota as a good example for using broadband funding. Yet she also acknowledged Minnesota’s need for better internet access.

“During the pandemic, of all things, we have seen the need for your services more than ever,” Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar unveiled a $94 billion broadband package earlier this month along with Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, of South Carolina. The bill mirrors a similar proposal those lawmakers made last year, which passed the House but was stymied in the Senate.

As co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, Klobuchar has championed several similar broadband proposals, including a bipartisan $2 billion bill for a Federal Communications Commission fund to help small broadband providers keep serving low-income families during the pandemic.

Minnesota’s state lawmakers are debating their own broadband funding proposals. DFL and GOP lawmakers largely support spending more money on broadband funding. Lawmakers from both parties proposed funding $120 million in broadband projects over the next two years earlier this year, while the Senate GOP released a broadband target goal of $40 million this year a few weeks ago.