The Governor's Taskforce on Broadband recently published their annual report for 2020, including the following Executive Summary. Jim Weikum, Executive Director of the Arrowhead Library System, represents the library community on the taskforce.
Minnesota’s approach to broadband infrastructure development and deployment is regarded by many as best in class and considered as a model to follow. The key components that make it so successful are the Border to Border grant matching program, the mapping capabilities, the realistic and forward-looking internet speed goals, and the Office of Broadband Development (OBD). To maintain the leadership position Minnesota has created for itself, the Task Force has evaluated the effectiveness of the program and recommends a number of adjustments to ensure continued progress and guarantee that all Minnesotans have access to adequate broadband service in this new digital age.
The Broadband Grant Program should maintain priority on the 157,000 unserved households as they are unlikely to get service without the grant program. After careful review of the estimated cost to serve those households and applicable federal programs, the Task Force has found that it would be best to continue to fund the Broadband Grant Program at a biennial amount of $120 million. The State should fund the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program as a part of the base budget each year to ensure continued progress unhindered by surpluses or deficits which have caused inconsistent funding. The Task Force has also determined that all future awards and expenditures must be on service that meets or exceeds the 2026 speed goal of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.
Recent analysis has shown that the State is narrowing in on achieving the 2022 goal and as of October 2020, 92% of Minnesotans have access to broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps. More importantly, Minnesota has also made great progress toward its 2026 goal with 88% of Minnesotans having access to broadband speeds of 100/20 Mbps. Rural broadband connectivity has also increased in the last five years. Access to speeds of 25/3 Mbps broadband has increased 21% since 2015. Access to 100/20 Mbps increased 124% as internet service providers are installing services that exceed the 2022 speed goal. While progress continues toward the 2022 goal, rural broadband availability is still 9% below the statewide percentage and the data continues to show a stark ‘digital divide’ when statewide broadband availability data is compared to rural data. Furthermore, the pandemic has revealed that 3 Mbps upload speed is inadequate to support remote business and education needs and can no longer be considered high-speed broadband.
The increase in demand for broadband services during the global COVID-19 pandemic suggest that it is time again to revisit the state’s broadband goals. In the coming year, the Task Force intends to study the extent to which current upload speeds meet the demands of internet users, the cost and infrastructure required to deploy symmetrical service, potential changes to the mapping process, and overall future speed goals for the State.
The Office of Broadband Development (OBD) administers the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program and works with partners on mapping broadband availability to more effectively direct state investment. The Office is a key resource for broadband providers and community leaders. The Taskforce recommends the Office of Broadband Development receive an appropriation of $700,000 per biennium from the base budget. This figure is needed to secure sufficient and ongoing funding for consistent operations and establishment of long-term partnerships and initiatives. Providing OBD with full funding, on an on-going basis is critically important to improving broadband infrastructure in Minnesota. In addition to the operations budget, the Task Force also recommends the creation of an operating annual fund of $1.5 million to promote digital literacy, provide affordable broadband access and improve the fluency of small businesses.
Research shows that investing in broadband adoption is just as critical and ensures that communities maximize the benefits of the available broadband infrastructure. Finally, the Minnesota Broadband Task Force along with the Office of Broadband Development encourages the engagement of state agencies to develop a strategy that will improve communications between the agencies and private internet service providers, eliminate or minimize cable cuts or disruption, and also consider a plan to connect the more challenging rural locations of Minnesota to assure Minnesota is truly a “connected state”.
Broadband connectivity has become a necessity in our everyday lives. Minnesota families find themselves working from home, their children participating in distance learning by connecting and completing assignments virtually, interacting with healthcare professionals digitally and finding new ways to connect with loved ones online. For Minnesotans struggling to keep pace with the virtual world, it has been a sprint to increase their digital literacy and discover what options were available to them. The Task Force believes that the recommendations set forth in this document will help expedite broadband deployment to those who are currently un-connected as well as improve the service of those who are currently experiencing inadequate service. The Task Force has also included a comprehensive overview of all the different broadband technologies currently available in the market. A description of these technologies is included in the last section of this report.