Senator Dan Sparks: Building Minnesota Broadband

Minnesotans deserve world-class high-speed internet

The biggest task of the 2019 Legislative Session is crafting a two-year budget that will fund state agencies, programs, and other parts of our state government. Our committees will be meeting over the next several months to hear legislation about funding statewide priorities, and our counterparts in the House of Representatives will be hearing legislation and moving forward with their priorities, and Governor Walz will also be preparing his own requests. By May, we will need to all come together to pass a final budget proposal that the Governor will sign into law.

While the Senate, House, and Governor’s office have different priorities, we also know there are issues with wide agreement. One such area is in expanding rural broadband access, as defined by a speed goal of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload. Broadband has quickly become vital for the success of communities throughout Minnesota. Just as much as physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, digital infrastructure is increasingly vital to the success of small businesses, agriculture, health care, education, and many other industries and sectors.

Just the other day I met with someone who outlined the real need for high-speed broadband access. He told me how he has the best internet option available in his area, and still had to make sure his children were off the internet before he could download documents, attachments, and other materials needed for his work. Even then, download speeds are slower than what should be expected for 2019. It may seem small, but even a short delay can prevent long-term growth and competitiveness for businessmen and women across the state.

Slow internet does much more than stifle rural economies. With telemedicine playing a bigger role in health care, we need fast connections to doctors, nurses, and other health professionals to ensure people can get the care they need. If a slow or poor connection means prolonged pain, we must fix it.

We have made progress on broadband investment. In 2017, we funded $20 million in grants for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. Thanks to these grants, there are several parts of the state that have reached the broadband goals, strengthening our state and these regional economies.

However, the program received 70 applications in 2017 requesting over $50 million, and still 252,000 households lack broadband internet with speeds of 100 Mbps/20 Mbps. It’s clear the need continues and while 90.77% of households have access to broadband, only 79.26% of households in rural areas do. This broadband gap must be closed to ensure our rural communities are not left behind.

The biggest need for continued broadband expansion is sustained funding for the Border-to-Border program. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate, as well as our counterparts in the House to securing this sustained funding. Governor Walz has been a longtime advocate for these types of investments, and I hope he will continue his support of this need in the weeks and months ahead.

Broadband has been a bipartisan issue in my time at the Senate, where we put the needs of our communities first, without letting politics get in the way. We know it’s an economic imperative, and vital for the health and wellbeing of our communities throughout the state. I look forward to working together collaboratively with legislators and advocates in making sure we take another step forward on broadband access in 2019.

This column was first published in the Albert Lea Tribune

Senator Dan Sparks
Dan Sparks represents District 27, which includes all or portions of Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Mower, and Steele counties in the southeastern part of the state.

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