Nora G. Hertel
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar knows of farmers in Minnesota who parked at McDonald's to use the internet to conduct their business.
She knows of a doctor who couldn't pull up and review X-rays at his home in northern Minnesota, Klobuchar said in a late-May phone call.
"Urban areas are more hooked up to the internet than rural areas," Klobuchar said, explaining the "digital divide" common in Minnesota and throughout the country.
The Democratic senatorand presidential candidate has championed several bills on the issue including one to map broadband coverage and one to measure the economic impact of broadband access.
A lack of internet access in some places creates inequity, Klobuchar said.
"This is no longer a luxury," she said.
Klobuchar's not the only one working to improve internet access and speeds. Minnesota officials at state and local levels are taking steps to extend service to underserved areas.
Minnesota lawmakers added $40 million to the state's Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program in the budget approved a couple weeks ago.
And the Stearns County Board will review a new Broadband Feasiblity Study on Tuesday that explores how to improve internet service to the southwest corner of the county.
"The whole western part of the county is unserved," Stearns County Administrator Michael Williams said.
The county's moving toward broadband service with download and upload speeds of 1,000 megabits per second, also referred to as one gigabit service, according to the new feasibility study.
Hopefully Stearns County can come up with a model for the Brooten, Belgrade and Elrosa area that will be used to improve internet access elsewhere, Williams said.
Why does it matter?
The number of American households with computers increased nearly 10-fold from 8% in 1984 to 79% in 2015, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, "Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2016."
Internet use has increased over time as well, according to the report. It's become important for daily tasks like shopping and paying bills, for social connections and for formal education and informal learning, like how-to videos.
"Access to broadband internet, in particular, is credited with having effects on individual empowerment, economic growth and community development," according to the 2016 report.
Internet access is essential in the 21st century for education, healthcare and small businesses, said state Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, in a May release from Senate Republicans about the agriculture budget. "Communities that lack access to broadband cannot flourish."
And yet large stretches of Stearns County and the rest of Minnesota are considered unserved or underserved, according to maps from the Department of Education and Economic Development.
Most of Stearns County south and west of Sauk Centre is "unserved," meaning there's no wireline broadband with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and minimum upload speeds of at least three megabits per second.
Even much of St. Cloud was considered "underserved" on the 2018 map, meaning download speeds were less than 100 megabits per second and upload speeds less than 20 megabits per second.
In Minnesota, 185,000 homes and businesses lack access, Klobuchar said.
Minnesota has set goals for internet access, aspiring to certain download and upload speeds for all residents by 2022 and increasing those speeds by 2026.
"It is critical to have this infrastructure available to all citizens." according to a new study on Stearns County broadband by NEO Connect. "It is a necessity, like water and electricity."
What can Stearns County do?
Late last year the Stearns County Board OK'd a study of options to improve broadband service.
The county paid for $25,000 of the study and a grant covered the other $25,000.
Board members will review the resulting report from the firm NEO Connect on Tuesday.
The 100-page report offers a few steps that the county can take to improve broadband to all residents: working with electrical utilities to share or reduce costs of deploying fiber lines, implementing broadband-friendly policies, collaborating with internet providers and using the state Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program.
County Board members will review the report Tuesday then work out next steps with the Broadband Task Force for the Brooten/Belgrade/Elrosa area, Williams said.
"We're going to have to keep plugging away at this," he said. "And hopefully, it's a model we can duplicate."
What's the state of Minnesota doing?
The state has a grant program, task force and goals all dedicated to improving broadband for Minnesotans.
The grant program launched in 2014. Its funding fell off last year when then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed an omnibus bill.
But lawmakers agreed in May to fund $40 million for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program over the next two years. Plus they budgeted a half a million dollars to the Broadband Development Office, according to the text of the bill.
Gov. Tim Walz reauthorized the state's Task Force on Broadband in March. The task force is credited with creating the Broadband Development Office, establishing the grant program and the goals for home and business broadband access that are set in state law.
Those goals? "No later than 2022, all Minnesota businesses and homes have access to high-speed broadband that provides minimum download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and minimum upload speeds of at least three megabits per second," according to state law. And "no later than 2026, all Minnesota businesses and homes have access to at least one provider of broadband with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second.
What can the feds do?
The Federal Communications Commission provides funding directly to telephone companies to subsidize the cost of extending internet service to hard-to-reach and less-lucrative markets.
Midco has already received funds through that federal program called the Connect America Fund or CAFII, according to the NEO Connect report for Stearns County.
"Although this program will help some areas within the county, this program is more of a stop-gap measure than a good long-term plan," according to the NEO report. "Midco's CAFII funding for Stearns County will build a wireless network serving areas surrounding Belgrade."
Lawmakers from the Midwest, including Klobuchar, are working on other ways to improve broadband. Klobuchar co-chairs the Senate Broadband Caucus.
She cosponsored the a bill folded into the Farm Bill meant to identify and address coverage gaps on farms and ranchland.
Klobuchar also cosponsored bills to improve broadband mapping, because "the FCC's broadband maps overstate coverage in many rural areas," according to a mid-May release. She also has her name on policies to measure the economic impact of broadband and one to require federal agencies share information on their broadband deployment efforts.
Local governments should communicate their broadband needs with federal and state officials, Klobuchar said.
"Most local governments have a much better idea of the areas that lack broadband access," Klobuchar said. "In the end, the federal government should play a larger role in providing resources to expand broadband to every American."
The Stearns County Board will assess the local need Tuesday and the NEO Connect recommendations and go from there.