Governor’s group: State not on track to meet goal of broadband for all

Gov. Mark Dayton’s year-old task force on broadband says Minnesota is not on track to meet the state’s 2015 goals of making high-speed Internet access available to every household by 2015.

It says state government needs to play a role if the whole state wants access to high-speed broadband.

Members of the task force, chaired by former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, say Minnesota has made only incremental progress toward goals the Legislature enacted in 2010.

“It is incumbent on the state to enact policies and incentives to encourage broadband deployment,” the task force said in a report this afternoon.

Among its recommendations:

–Tax credits or grants that would to encourage the state’s 120 broadband providers to build Internet networks in unserved areas by offsetting some of the required investment. The task force likes Wisconsin as a model, but says the state Department of Revenue is working on the potential cost of this.

–Extension of an existing sales tax exemption on equipment purchased for use in a

central office to include the purchase of fiber optics and broadband equipment. This, too, would be an incentive for providers to lay more fiber, and the task force estimates it would cost the state $5 million in 2014-15 and $6 million in 2016-17.

–Implementation of a “dig once” policy that would streamline construction for new fiber when highway work is being conducted.

–Scholarship money for poor students to get broadband access. One thousand scholarships would costs about $420,000 a year, the task force estimates.

–Money for libraries and schools to increase access to public computers that let people get onto the Internet. The group recommends spending $4 million in the 2014-2015 biennium.

The task force has spent the past year studying how well Minnesota is doing in its effort to become world class when it comes to availability and use of high-speed Internet access. It’s a question many people consider a crucial 21st Century infrastructure challenge. The fear is that those left on the wrong side of the digital divide will be unable to participate fully in the economy, education, health care systems or other facets of life.

As the state defines broadband speed (10 megabits per second download and six megabits per second upload — more or less what’s needed for good two-way video communication) about 62 percent of Minnesota’s households have it available to them. In a few rural counties, nobody can get those speeds.

That percentage has been inching up. Some federal stimulus projects under way are likely to raise it soon, and wireless expansions by AT&T and Verizon are bringing mobile Internet access to additional residents.

But even if that goal is met, many people think the world is changing fast enough that more needs to be done — a higher speed goal, more fiber in the ground, more poor people, disabled people and minorities trained to use the Internet.

The task force’s recommendations go to the governor and then, if he agrees, to the Legislature.