Driving from Ely to Duluth this week, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar suddenly lost cell service. How fitting that in addition to a book signing and other commitments and appointments, she was scheduled to chat with the News Tribune editorial board about the pressing need to expand high-speed broadband Internet service deeper into rural Minnesota.
Far beyond the convenience of a senator or anyone else being able to make a phone call, reliable broadband is becoming an increasingly critical need for farmers, rural business owners and others attempting to operate and compete globally. More and more, too, health care is going high-tech, and broadband is needed to deliver quality care to areas outside of large cities.
“This is the rural electrification issue of our time. And it’s the perfect time to move on it. We’re no longer governing from crisis,” Klobuchar, D-Minn., told editorial board members. “It’s no longer just about access. It’s how fast it is. Can you compete?”
While Minnesota lawmakers and state leaders have been talking big but allocating little to expand rural broadband, the good news for the mostly rural Northland and others in the Gopher State is that there’s still the federal Connect America Fund, the modern reincarnation of the Universal Service Fund. That was the funding mechanism that helped build out telephone networks, including to farms and other sparsely populated areas, last century.
The Connect America Fund collects fees from telephone users in order to offer annual service subsidies that allow Internet providers to extend service to higher-cost rural areas without increasing the bills of existing ratepayers.
Through 2020, more than $85 million from the fund is to be invested in Minnesota, enough to connect over 170,000 rural locations that right now don’t have high-speed broadband. Our state’s Internet service providers simply had to say yes to the money. Frontier did so in June. Consolidated, Windstream and CenturyLink followed suit last month, ahead of a Monday deadline to commit.
Providers said yes in Wisconsin, too, where more than $95 million from the fund will help connect more than 230,000 rural residents.
Nationally, carriers said yes to $1.5 billion from the fund, enough to connect nearly 7.3 million rural consumers in 45 states, as the Federal Communications Commission announced Friday.
That’s progress — but it’s still not enough, according to Klobuchar. With Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and 40-plus other members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, she sent a letter to the FCC, she said, “looking for some real money, asking them to reexamine the Universal Service Fund, which is a humongous fund.”
But the fund right now “is mainly all about landlines,” she continued. “Well, there are less and less landlines. We don’t want to take away all the landlines. That would be a problem. But (we want to) use more of (the fund) for rural broadband. So it’s an existing fund that is there right now where we think some of the money is going to where it doesn’t need to. We also think some should go to providers who will (expand broadband), and there will be more bang.”
The senator’s written request comes at the same time as legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan to create, for the first time, a coordinated federal strategy to expanding high-tech communications. Centralized at what would be the new Office of Rural Broadband Initiatives would be $724 million in grants and loans already being distributed for broadband. The office also would handle existing federal regulations related to broadband and would be run by a new under-secretary appointed by the president. The office would be the go-to place for local, regional and state broadband efforts as well as serve as a central clearinghouse for broadband information for federal agencies.
Closer to home, as frustrated as many Minnesotans may be over how long it’s taking to achieve border-to-border broadband, Minnesota actually is doing better than many places. Minnesota created task forces to study the need and to determine how it can be met. The state has an Office of Broadband Development. And while it was only a fraction of the $100 million deemed necessary by experts,
$10.6 million was allocated during the Legislature’s special session this June for the state’s broadband infrastructure grant program.
Earlier this summer, Klobuchar said concrete action has to match all the talk about the need for rural broadband expansion. “We need to actually put ... the money where your mouth is,” she said, according to the Brainerd Dispatch.
That appears to be happening, even if frustratingly slowly — and even as a U.S. senator loses cell service somewhere between Ely and Duluth.