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Guest Opinion: Let's keep moving forward on border-to-border broadband

In today's always-connected world, it's tough for many of us to imagine life without our computer and our smartphone, and the high-speed Internet that helps us connect with businesses, health care, schools, friends, and family. But still for too ...

In today's always-connected world, it's tough for many of us to imagine life without our computer and our smartphone, and the high-speed Internet that helps us connect with businesses, health care, schools, friends, and family. But still for too many Minnesotans, broadband access simply isn't available and if it is, it's often at slower, unreliable speeds.

Broadband Internet, like the interstate highway system of the 1950s or the railroads of the 1880s, is the backbone of today's economy, helping expand opportunity and improve our quality of life.

In Grand Rapids and surrounding districts, students use virtual classrooms to take high-level courses in math and physics, college courses and Ojibwe language classes that would normally not be offered due to low enrollment; and schools in southwest Minnesota use broadband to connect students with specialists from the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. Broadband is expanding student options and helping them prepare for college and beyond.

We don't have to look far to see the challenges Minnesota faces without border-to-border broadband. During a Broadband Task Force visit to a library in Alexandria - an area of the state with sparse access to broadband - a librarian told a story of arriving to open the doors of the library, only to find a student and parent sitting outside the library in a truck, using the library's wireless Internet connection to take an online test because broadband wasn't available elsewhere in the community. This story is all too common across large areas of rural Minnesota.

Right now, 36 percent of rural households in Minnesota are unserved by fixed service that meets state speed goals. Twenty-four counties in Greater Minnesota have less than 50 percent availability to adequate terrestrial, non-mobile broadband service - while some, including both Crow Wing and Aitkin Counties, are far below even that at 37 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively.

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With an estimated cost ranging between $900 million for a cable-based solution and $3.2 billion for fiber to the home and farm, much work remains.

But Minnesota is making progress. Last year, the Legislature reinstated the sales tax exemption for telecommunications equipment and passed $20 million in grants for broadband deployment projects across the state. These grants provide up to 50 percent of the project costs and went to 17 entities across the state, serving 6,095 households, 83 community institutions and 150 businesses.

One grant going to Arvig in the Sauk Lake area will help students gain household Internet connectivity, making it easier for them to work on their homework and projects. Another grant will go to Dunnell Telephone in Martin County and increase access to health care services - a great outcome when you consider the fact that there are no local health care facilities in the area. A third grant will build-out high-speed broadband in Roseau County, critical to major companies like Polaris and Marvin Windows that do business around the world and work with smaller businesses in the area.

Minnesota needs to build on the progress made so far, and continue to move forward to meet the state's broadband speed goals. Doing so requires action from the private and public sectors alike. As the Legislature considers which investments to make, broadband must be on the list of priorities.

With a nearly $2 billion surplus, the Legislature should seriously consider the recommendations of the Governor's Task Force on Broadband, and go big on funding the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program and providing our schools and libraries with the additional funding they need to help ensure every child has access to reliable broadband.

Expanding access to broadband is crucial for expanding opportunity for all. As Minnesota looks to maintain a growing, competitive economy, and a high quality of life, we must continue to make progress to ensure that the state has access to broadband, from border to border. As the legislative session rolls along, let's work together to make this a reality.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher is the President and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association and Chair of the Governor's Task Force on Broadband.

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