Survey: Broadband expansion trumps other needs in greater Minnesota

What does rural Minnesota’s economy need most? More broadband.

That’s the surprising takeaway from an informal survey of economic development officials, non-profits, chambers of commerce, business people, legislators and local government leaders by the recently formed Greater Minnesota Partnership.

Broadband came out on top, higher than job skills, infrastructure, transportation or tax issues in nearly 150 responses.

The Greater Minnesota Partnership asked a variety of rural Minnesota leaders to rate the importance of issues. Both at a meeting of officials and in a follow-up survey, broadband came out as the most important.

Broadband is “more crucial than people give it credit for,” said Dan Dorman, a former state representative and now the partnership’s executive director.

Dorman admits he didn’t give broadband enough focus either when he was in the Legislature. So when the partnership sets its legislative agenda early in February, it’s likely to come up with at least a few broadband recommendations.

One might be urging lawmakers end a rule that forces towns to get 65 percent voter approval before they can build their own local, faster Internet service.  Getting that change will mean a fight with the telecommunications industry.

Another recommendation might be to spend part of the state’s expected surplus on infrastructure — including broadband projects.

Dorman, a Republican from Albert Lea, Minn., said he personally preferred putting surplus money in a rainy day fund. “But that’s not going to happen,” he said, so broadband should be on the table.

The survey wasn’t scientific. Job training might have risen to the top had more businesses responded, Dorman said. Still, broadband is a topic high on people’s minds.

Even in communities with decent broadband service, business people “still understand we’re falling behind the Twin Cities and other states,” he said.