MANKATO, Minn. — Lawmakers say broadband funding will be a crucial issue in this year's legislative session, but no one is certain just how much the state will spend.

COVID-related regulations and lockdown efforts exacerbated Greater Minnesota's need for better Internet access over the past year, giving urgency to the Capitol's annual debate over broadband infrastructure.

Democrats and Republicans have argued over broadband funding levels in recent years, as well as what type of broadband technology to use.

Democrats generally favor spending more money on fiber optics cable infrastructure, which experts say is more expensive but ultimately more stable and will adapt better to higher future Internet speeds. Republicans generally favor spending less money on targeted wireless technology, which experts say costs less but doesn't stabilize Internet connections as well as wired connections.

Democratic Rep. Rob Ecklund, of International Falls, recently introduced a $120 million broadband funding proposal, the latest in a series of similarly sized DFL bills over the past few years. While Republicans agree broadband will be a priority this year, many are reluctant to support a bill that large in light of a projected $1.3 billion state budget deficit.

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Rep. Rob Ecklund
Rep. Rob Ecklund

"It's a nice dream," said Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake. "I'm just glad that they're willing to support broadband."

Complicating the issue is the looming federal aid money from the stimulus proposal Congress passed in December. States are expected to get about $300 billion in funding for various issues related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which includes about $7 billion marked for broadband efforts.

It's unclear how that broadband money will be divvied up. Local lawmakers say they have yet to hear from federal officials how much they'll receive or whether they'll have to provide matching grants to accept the aid.

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she expects federal aid to cover the state's immediate broadband industry needs as there's a backlog on building supplies. Yet she also said broadband is "one of the biggest issues ever for economic recovery of the state."

Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, agreed, saying the state should invest as much as it can in broadband this year to make up for the lack of access some in Greater Minnesota face.

"We've seen school kids being told to study online that have no Internet at all at their homes," Frentz said. "We've seen even more clearly, in my opinion, the ways high-speed Internet can help rural economic development."

Draheim and Frentz have been key negotiators on broadband issues over the past few years. Draheim said he expects to introduce broadband legislation soon that would also include requirements for companies to ensure they connect all households in a project area, as well as follow through on promised services.

"If we're relying on this for school and for mental health and, of course, for businesses and entertainment at the end, we can't leave people behind," Draheim said. "You might have a block or two of six, seven houses that get left behind. Their kids are just as important as my kids."

(c)2021 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.