Broadband champions gather at statewide conference to organize for anticipated federal funding
Grand Rapids, MINN – “This is a game changer,” said United States Senator Amy Klobuchar about the pending federal infrastructure bill which includes $65 billion in broadband funding. Klobuchar joined more than 100 rural Minnesota broadband champions at the Building on Broadband: Inspiring Progress conference held last week to discuss the state’s best opportunities to get fully connected.
“We have 144,000 Minnesotans in rural areas without access to high-speed Internet and the pandemic put a big, fat magnifying glass on all of it,” Klobuchar said. “It showed us the kids, sometimes ten to twenty percent of the kids in a community who had to have paper packets dropped off while the other kids were online. It was such a disparity. There are so many reasons, but at its core, if we want rural Minnesota to thrive, and we don’t want everyone living in the big population centers of the state, we’ve got to have broadband there.”
For years, rural leaders have been putting in the hard work of planning and partnering to be prepared for the broadband funding opportunities now lining up. If passed, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding for broadband will join with existing funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and the American Rescue Plan Act’s Capital Projects Fund to bring millions in broadband funding to Minnesota.
Organizing together to make the most of the coming federal and state funding was the central topic of the conference, hosted by Blandin Foundation with support from the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, Growth & Justice, Collectivity and Lead for Minnesota. Coordination of the multiple funding streams and geographic project eligibility are among the top two questions of broadband champions right now.
“There is more public funding available for broadband now than ever,” said conference speaker and Pine County Economic Development Coordinator Lezlie Sauter. “All the funding is getting providers to talk to us much more easily than in the past and the pandemic has changed minds about the importance of broadband in the super rural parts of our communities. Now is the time to collaborate together for stronger applications.”
The statewide conference was the culmination of eight regional broadband meetings where more than 300 Minnesotans shared their thoughts on what the state needs to prepare for the coming broadband funding. Key themes from across the eight meetings included the need for more local broadband champions, frequent and digestible funding updates for community champions, cross-county coordination and adaptive funding mechanisms that incentivize broadband providers.
“Listening to the regional conferences, it became so clear how human of a challenge this is,” said Benya Kraus, executive director of Lead for Minnesota. “You think broadband is such a tech-oriented conversation…but the difference between a community that has figured it out and one that hasn’t isn’t whether or not you had a bunch of tech experts, but if you have the grit as a community, the collaboration and the sustained people power.”
While people power is essential for broadband work, not all communities have the capacity and resources to direct towards solving broadband connectivity issues. Yet broadband remains a critical key to a high quality of life in rural places, from access to online education to tele-mental health counseling, job searching to online elder care, broadband connectivity.
“After years of hard work, partnerships and planning, many rural leaders have laid the groundwork for these funding opportunities, and yet there’s still more work to do,” said Tuleah Palmer, president and CEO of Blandin Foundation. “Existing broadband funding and programs, including Blandin Foundation’s own work, have done a good job in communities where there’s readiness. Now we need to work together to reach deeper into the hard-to-reach communities to bring broadband to the last mile.”
As a resource for community broadband planning, the 2020 Minnesota County Broadband Profiles were released during the conference. These profiles can help rural leaders identify gaps in access and use, as well as learn from other more-connected counties. Find them at https://bit.ly/MNbroadbandprofiles
All conference recordings and materials can be found at www.blandinonbroadband.org.