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Other Opinion: Don't back off on broadband

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During this pandemic, with so many Minnesotans working from home, attending classes and meetings from home, and shopping from home, never has reliable, high-speed “border-to-border broadband been as urgent or as in dire need as right now,” as a News Tribune editorial opined this month.

Just a couple weeks later, encouraging news is brewing in St. Louis County and also in St. Paul, where politics too often has been put ahead of appropriate funding, leaving an estimated 14% to 17% of nonmetro Minnesotans still without internet access or lacking the speeds needed for videoconferencing and for other school and business activities.

The urgency to broaden broadband — especially by pushing it deeper into rural areas, like so much of the Northland — has been likened to bringing electricity and indoor plumbing to farms and elsewhere in America in the early 1900s.

To accelerate the modern-day version of that, in St. Paul, a $10 million “patch” is being prepared this session “to bridge distance-learning and telemedicine gaps,” as Dan Larson, executive director of Minnesota Rural Counties, reported this week to the News Tribune Opinion page.

Specifically, the Minnesota Senate is considering a measure to assist students who don’t have at-home internet access so they also can participate in distance learning the rest of this school year. The measure additionally would provide reimbursements to health care providers for technology or software purchases to improve diagnosing and evaluating patients during the pandemic. Any of these badly needed emergency funds unused by Sept. 30 would be returned to the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program.

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The Minnesota House is expected to introduce a companion bill soon, Larson said.

Another $10 million being considered by the Legislature would bolster that Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program, increasing its funding this year $30 million for internet access-improving projects in unserved and underserved areas.

During this same unprecedented time, St. Louis County and the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, or RAMS, is speed-testing broadband — and your help is requested in “taking advantage of a bad situation to collect the most comprehensive, current data on real-time (speeds) for broadband connections across the county,” RAMS Executive Director Steve Giorgi said in an email this week, including to the News Tribune Opinion page.

Reported and advertised internet speeds are oftentimes “less than accurate,” Girogi said, and, “The results of this project will provide statistically valid data that will be available for any locale in St Louis County that wishes to pursue a broadband project in the near future. To participate, go to expressoptimizer.net/public/.

“This is the easiest thing that anyone can do to help St Louis County become fully connected to high-speed, quality broadband,” Giorgi said. “Having this data will enhance grant requests and will be instrumental in attracting internet providers to consider a project somewhere in our county.”

As the News Tribune has opined, this pandemic is forcing all of us to focus on basics. And if it wasn't clear before, it is now: Reliable internet is as basic today as indoor plumbing and electricity were a century ago. So, St. Louis County, RAMS, the Minnesota Legislature and other governmental entities can be held accountable for rising above politics and for following through on bolstering broadband.

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