Legislators agree to spend $20 million on broadband

Senate and House conferees agreed late Wednesday to spend $20 million on broadband infrastructure in Minnesota, marking the first time lawmakers have decided to put money into building faster Internet connections.

It’s far less than the $100 million that a governor’s task force recommended early this year, but Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, one of the strongest proponents, called it a “meaningful down payment” on the state’s goal of making high-speed Internet connections ubiquitous in the state.

Under the legislation, communities will have to propose broadband projects and find matching money locally.

“I expect this will spawn a lot of conversations in communities,” Schmit said.

There’s evidence for that in the 60-plus expressions of interest Minnesota communities sent to the Federal Communications Commission when it announced it was seeking ideas on getting broadband service into rural America.

The new legislation requires communities to come up with at least a 50 percent match to get any money. That could come from public sources, telecommunications or other private companies, cooperatives or combinations of those organizations. The maximum grant will be $5 million, Schmit said. The money has to go to areas that don’t meet the state speed goals of 10 megabits per second download and 5 megabits per second upload, and the top priority will go to areas that have far slower speeds.

The Office of Broadband Development in the Department of Employment and Economic Development will administer the grants.

About three-quarters of Minnesota households have access to the Internet at speeds the state considers adequate. To make that service available to everyone would cost as much as $3.2 billion, the governor’s task force on broadband estimated earlier this year.

Gov. Dayton lauded the legislation, saying it is important for economic growth. Schmit said he “absolutely” would push for more broadband infrastructure money next year.