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States continue to pursue strategies to expand broadband access

by Laura Tomaka ~ April 2016 ~ Stateline Midwest »
In recent years, state government has taken a more active role in helping provide citizens with greater access to reliable broadband Internet. By using funding or incentives to encourage providers to expand broadband into underserved areas, policymakers hope to address equity issues involving access, as well as the role that access plays in terms of improved education, economic development and even public safety.
In June of last year, Iowa lawmakers approved legislation (HF 655) that provides property tax abatements to companies that install equipment to build out broadband infrastructure throughout the state. In August, Gov. Terry Branstad announced that an additional 90,000 Iowa households would have access to high-speed Internet as a result of the plan.
This session, lawmakers in Wisconsin and Minnesota have also weighed proposals for making broadband service more available throughout their states. Wisconsin’s AB 820, signed into law in March, seeks to expedite development in the state’s most remote areas by reducing bureaucratic and fiscal barriers for service providers.
Under the new law, the state will certify communities as “Broadband Forward!” if they limit application fees and streamline the application process — for example, providing a timeline and a single point of contact for service providers. A separate bill (AB 798) would have increased annual funding for the state’s Broadband Expansion Grant Program from $1.5 million to $10 million. It did not pass prior to this year’s legislative adjournment.
In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing to add $100 million to the state’s Border-to-Border broadband grant program; a separate measure proposes a more modest boost of $35 million. Rep. Dave Baker, sponsor of the latter proposal, says his position in the broadband debate is largely about prioritizing available resources, as well as taking a long-term approach to an ever-evolving technology.
“[There is] never enough money,” he says. “The governor wants $100 million. I would like that, too. However, we have many priorities in the state ... that also need money.” Despite improvement efforts in recent years, Minnesota lags behind national numbers measuring high-speed availability. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 17 percent of the U.S. population (or 55 million people) lacks adequate access to high-speed broadband service, defined by the FCC as download speeds of 25 megabits per second, or Mbps, and upload speeds of 3 Mbps.
As of February of this year, 20 percent of Minnesota households lacked access to a download speed of at least 10 Mbps — a goal set in statute in 2010. Last year, the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband recommended a new download goal of 25 Mbps.
“Speed goals are the tool we are using to identify unserved and underserved areas,” Baker says.
The broadband gap is widest in rural communities, where half of Americans can’t get advanced broadband service, but Baker says other areas of Minnesota are hampered by the lack of high-speed access.
“My bill also identifies low-income areas as a priority,” he says. “The poorest areas should not be forgotten.”
Wherever the state’s grant dollars go, he adds, it’s important that the broadband-related work done with them can meet future demands and changes.
“The goal is to do this once; we don’t want to ever go back and redo something that didn’t expand with new technologies,” says Baker, noting that “wireless and satellite products are improving each year with amazing results and need to be a part of the solution.”
But while legislators still have to work through this year’s proposals, there seems to be widespread agreement that Minnesota should be investing in broadband.
“This is a real infrastructure need,” Baker says. “Keeping residents in rural Minnesota for job retention and growth is key. Having acceptable broadband has a big impact on quality of life, not to mention more home-based businesses that need better speeds. Minnesota will lag far behind our other states if we don’t assist when private industry can’t or won’t.”

 

Article written by Laura Tomaka, CSG Midwest staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Economic Development Committee.