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Connecting broadband to Greater Minnesota

Broadband is to the 21st century what rural electrification was to the 20th. (Photo: REA)

The year was 1936, and the United States Congress had just passed the Rural Electrification Act. That congressional action was prompted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who one year earlier had created the Rural Electrification Administration. It was the post-Great Depression era and this was one of the President’s New Deal programs, designed in part to stimulate the American economy and lower the high rate of unemployment.

Many of America’s urban areas enjoyed the basic comforts associated with electricity. But in most rural areas, including vast areas of Minnesota, electricity was simply not available. Providers could not justify the expense of extending the electrical grid to a sparsely populated area, meaning farmers and families in rural America could not enjoy the benefits of electricity. Most cities were being powered by a relatively low voltage system, and if lines were extended just a few miles out of town, the voltage dropped off quickly.

The REA changed the landscape for rural America and for Greater Minnesota. By having access to electricity, many small communities, farms, schools and other institutions were able to survive and to prosper in a better life. Electricity was a necessity of the time and changed rural America forever.

Fast forward to current times. Many will suggest that access to quality broadband service in today’s world is much like the need that spurred FDR’s REA  80 years ago. And since 2013, I and others in the Minnesota Legislature have worked collectively with Gov. Mark Dayton to try and extend quality and dependable broadband access to rural areas of Minnesota. In 2014, we created the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program, designed to provide a 50/50 matching grant program that would in turn leverage private investments and create opportunities of expansion. To date, we have appropriated more than $60 million to this program, leveraging many more private dollars and bringing dependable services to many homes, business and community anchor institutions.

What we in larger cities take for granted is a much-needed service all across Minnesota. For many of the same reasons the REA was successful in saving rural America so long ago, broadband access will allow Minnesotans to remain in their homes, grow and attract businesses, improve delivery of education, health care and many other important services across Minnesota, regardless of where you might be.

This program is far more than a convenience program. It is an economic development and an economic diversity tool. If we want our smaller rural communities to survive and retain populations, we have to invest in their infrastructures to promote their stability. This is why I again chief authored a bill to appropriate $100 million from our current budget surplus into the border-to-border grant program. This request aligns with the recommendations of the Governor’s task force on broadband deployment and is supported by Democrats all across Greater Minnesota. I believe strongly that if our rural communities can retain viable economies, then Minnesota as a whole will be strong. Just like when we electrified all of America, we can and must work together to accomplish great things.

Erik Simonson

Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, represents District 7 in the Minnesota Senate. He may be contacted at (651) 296-4188.

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