DFL Legislature could make a difference for broadband

DULUTH — High speed access to the Internet didn’t get much attention during the campaign for last week’s elections. But the turnover in Minnesota’s Legislature could make a difference in the state’s broadband policy.

“It’s a more opportune time,” said Margaret Anderson Kelliher, former House speaker and chair of the task force charged with making recommendations on the topic to the state next month. The DFL-controlled Legislature will present challenges of its own, she said, but the environment seems riper for what’s at the top of a lot of people’s minds here this week — public-private broadband partnerships.

Anderson Kelliher was here for a regular meeting of the task force but she also chaired a panel to kick off the ninth annual broadband conference hosted by the Blandin Foundation. Some 200 Minnesotans are gathered for a couple days to talk about expanding Internet access for rural Minnesotans and increasing the number of people who take advantage of it once its available.

“We need Minnesotans to adopt broadband,” Anderson Kelliher said.

She said Gov. Mark Dayton is committed to investing in broadband and thought some of the ideas her task force is planning to propose might well be received better in the new Legislature than in the current GOP-controlled Legislature.

One proposal would provide money for private providers to extend their networks in underserved areas, particularly those with low incomes. Grants are more palatable than tax credits these days, she said. Another would increase funding to libraries and schools to assist the “digitally disadvantaged.” The education tax credit could be broadened to include Internet expenses for individuals. Another could offer a sales tax break for equipment that lets providers extend their networks.

Conservative lawmakers in Minnesota and elsewhere have tried to make it more difficult for local governments to start utilities that deliver Internet access. That, Anderson Kelliher suggested, isn’t likely to gain approval in the new Legislature.

The goal for ubiquitous access keeps getting closer, slowly. Connect Minnesota, the organization charged with tracking the state’s progress, announced today at the conference that 61.57 percent of Minnesota households have access to the Internet at download speeds of 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of six megabits per second.

Minnesota’s goal is to make those speeds available to all households by 2015. The new figure is up a couple points from last spring.