Update June 1, 2021: Minnesota legislative leaders have thus far agreed on $70 million in state funding for broadband.
Access to the internet has been vital for students, useful to homebound parents, and a lifeline helping older adults deal with social isolation. The key component for these access points to health and growth is connection to reliable and cost- effective broadband services and digital literacy. This creates another divide for vulnerable populations, including the disabled, elderly, and those in rural communities.
More than $2 million in grants were offered through many nonprofit organizations to improve digital access for Minnesota students, supported in a partnership that came together quickly between the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity and Partnership for a ConnectedMN.
A 2021 report from the Federal Communications Commission, based on 2019 data, indicates that access has reached 91.4 percent of Minnesota homes, but many statewide women report that in reality the percentage is much lower.
The Blandin Foundation, based in Grand Rapids, is helping rural Minnesota communities get and use the broadband they need. Bernadine Joselyn, director of the Foundation’s Public Policy and Engagement, says, “The easier work has been done,” referring to connectivity infrastructure in mostly Minnesota metro areas. “What is left to do is hard and takes partnership and stick-to-itiveness and creativity. If it were profitable, [internet providers] would be serving [more communities].”
The pandemic motivated local communities and state representatives to recognize why access and digital skills are “absolutely critical to participate in society today,” Joselyn says. “Areas without broadband cannot attract and retain workers, families, students.”
Widespread broadband access in rural areas needs a public policy solution. Joselyn says it is community efforts — much of them led by women, some with home-based businesses — required to improve that access.
“We have to help legislators understand that ongoing public investment in broadband access and adoption is crucial. The divide is getting worse and threatens the core of democracy.”
A governor-appointed broadband task force has 15 statewide members who create legislative goals and recommendations. A state-funded broadband grant program, now in its sixth year, provides an incentive for local internet providers to reach unprofitable areas, as administered by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Communities raise independent funds alongside grants. The latest round of applications were due June 1.
In 2019, the state appropriated $20 million for 2020 and the same for 2021. Sen. Erin Murphy (DFL–Saint Paul) is trying to increase that investment to $120 million for faster statewide access. By July, the budget should be in place that will determine how much will be appropriated after 2021.
LeSeuer County’s Barbara Droher Kline was frustrated that a neighbor 1,000 feet away was in the zone for an internet provider. Kline, on the other hand, had to pay independently to get her home and business connected. Telecommunications borders — based on 1996 regulations, before home internet services were common — establish telephone boundaries as market territories. Her particular address was not permitted to be part of the nearest network.
Kline set to work, building a sustained effort in her community to support the funding work needed to get wider broadband access. Her area, with a population of 28,000, went from one of the least connected counties in Minnesota to being on track to be one of the most connected, within a few years.
However, this community effort, and others like it, have been potentially delayed because of a $1.32 billion federal grant awarded to LTD Broadband, which currently serves parts of southern Minnesota. The small wireless technology company has been awarded $312 million to create fiber optics networks throughout Minnesota, and has additional funds to connect 14 other states. As the lowest bidder, LTD got the highest share of federal grant money. There is concern by some about this development.
In a forum hosted by 100 Rural Women in April, Joselyn and Tina May, vice president of rural services at Land O’Lakes, discussed how women tend to be leading the broadband efforts statewide.
May noted that people at the federal level might not have a good sense of how many households have access. Service providers are able to claim they have covered a geographic area even if only a few households are connected to that network.
One action step, suggested by Teresa Kittridge, director of 100 Rural Women, is for households to take an online speed test. Joselyn explains that the more data points there are on citizen-generated maps, the better decision-making tools policy makers have.
May, who grew up in an Iowa town of fewer than 500 people, notes that an obstacle to appropriate public policy is that there are limited legislative seats held by people from rural areas. It is connection with metro policy makers that can make a difference, hearing stories that can open up stronger funding.
At the forum, May announced that Land O’Lakes was part of a 19-partner effort launching the new American Connection Corps, recruiting college graduates to roll out broadband in rural hometowns around the country and familiarize local residents with the technology. The initial class of 50 recruits, to be announced in June, will work in 12 states, including Minnesota. Lead for America, cofounded by Minnesota’s Benya Kraus, based in Waseca (and a Minnesota Women’s Press columnist), will oversee recruitment for the program.
As Kraus told Fast Company magazine, returning graduates to rural communities signals to residents that their communities are worthwhile. “This is a place that is worthy of investment, and worthy of return.” Young people have a strong sense of “rootedness and responsibility,” she said, and want to go home to improve conditions, despite the challenges. They think: “If I don’t do it, who will?”
The entire Minnesota broadband office is run by women. Joselyn says these are the women who know that “everything we care about is better with broadband. It is the 21st century opportunity key.”
Take an online speed test. The more data points there are on citizen-generated maps, the better decision-making tools policy makers will have about where broadband speeds are and are not strong.