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Minn. Senate hears rural broadband bills

ST. PAUL — The Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy Committee heard three bills on Wednesday that would provide funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program.

The bills would improve access to affordable broadband especially for the state’s underserved rural areas.

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program was created in 2014. The focus is to provide state resources that help make the financial case for new and existing providers to invest in building broadband infrastructure into unserved and underserved areas of the state.

In the 2019 legislative session, $20 million was appropriated for fiscal year 2020 and 2021.

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the longstanding problem of the lack of broadband access in rural Minnesota,” said Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls.

“Our students, especially, struggled to learn outside of the classroom. Many of them had to travel to ‘hot spots’ just to complete their homework. This is unacceptable.”

According to Dahms, The bills’ funding levels range from $50 million to $150 million for the upcoming biennial budget. The Rural Broadband Coalition has asked for $120 million over the biennium as is also suggested by the governor’s Task Force on Broadband. The bills were laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.

“Unlike the Twin Cities area, high-speed reliable broadband is not a luxury in our area,” Dahms said. “In order for students, families, communities, and businesses to thrive, we need to expand broadband to all areas of the state.”

Since 2014, lawmakers have invested over $104 million in the competitive grant program, leveraging private investments to expand access to over 49,900 homes and businesses.

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