Greater MN: Collaboration to Improve Broadband

This is part of a deeper story Minnesota Women's Press is doing for its "Reconstruction" theme in June
Women on a 100 Rural Women forum April 28 discussing rural broadband access included host Teresa Kittridge, director, and Bernadine Joselyn of Blandin Foundation

Blandin Foundation, based in Grand Rapids, is keeping track of Minnesota’s broadband connectivity. We talked with Bernadine Joselyn, director of the Blandin Foundation’s Public Policy and Engagement program, about what the future might have in store for improving broadband access in Minnesota’s communities. 

The pandemic motivated everyone from local communities to 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 maintain workers, families, students.”

Joselyn says the propensity in the U.S. is to rely on the free market, which has not been adequate to fill needs. “We have to make different choices as a society,” she adds. “We have to help legislators understand that public investment in broadband access is crucial. The divide is getting worse and threatens the core of democracy.”  

LeSeuer County’s Barbara Droher Kline had been frustrated that her home-based business could not access broadband services. So she set to work, building a sustained effort in her community to support the funding work needed to get 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. [Listen to a podcast with Kline discussing the effort here.] 

This community effort with local providers, and others like it, however, has 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. This might limit how much state funding will be given to communities that LTD promises to serve in the future. 

As Joselyn points out, those who have good broadband live in communities where it is profitable for providers to offer it. She suggests that co-ops, which exist to bring prosperity to its members, are part of the answer to expanding true broadband access. “Everything we care about is better with broadband. It is the 21st century opportunity key.”

Bright Spots

  • In a forum hosted April 28 by 100 Rural Women, Bernadine Joselyn, director of the Blandin Foundation’s Public Policy and Engagement program, and Tina May, vice president of Rural Services at Land O’Lakes, discussed how women tend to be leading the broadband efforts statewide and what the status of that work is today.
  • May announced in the forum that the women-led Lead for America and Lead for Minnesota coalition is creating a new America Connection Corps, placing young people in hometowns in two-year fellowships focused on connectivity access and training, partly to help communities rally around and apply for federal and state funding that is starting to be available.
  • More than $2 million in grants were offered through many nonprofit organizations to improve digital access for Minnesota students dealing with distance learning, supported in a partnership that came together quickly between the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity and Partnership for a ConnectedMN.
  • In 2020, state funds appropriated $20 million for 2020 and for 2021. Sen. Erin Murphy (St. 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 for this work after 2021.
  • Senator Amy Klobuchar is leading a U.S. Congressional effort to improve broadband.

Action Step

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.

Learn & Engage