Our point of view: another ally to expand broadband

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After a year of hooking up at home, distance learning, and working through Zoom, all in vigilance against the disease and deadly devastation of COVID-19, another necessity has arisen that at one point also seemed right. a kindness or a luxury: a reliable and a solid internet connection.

Despite all the proper attention and responsible public investment to expand the reach of broadband, especially since the onset of the pandemic, a surprising 440,000 Minnesota still lack access to speeds fast enough to do business or go. at school. According to BroadbandNow, a service researcher and internet access advocate, approximately 125,000 residents of Gopher State do not have a wired internet provider where they live.

A lingering barrier to border-to-border broadband, long a goal for the state, is what businesses tend to do after landing state or federal grants meant to push broadband availability to more homes. “They often choose a path (that serves) larger population centers to increase profits,” as Darrick Moe, president and CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association of Maple Grove, wrote in a commentary. aired last week on the Opinion page of the News Tribune and elsewhere.

“This approach, while beneficial for investors, results in islands of unserved and underserved communities that become even more difficult and expensive to reach,” Moe wrote. “Without the financial incentive to serve smaller, more rural areas, they are repeatedly bypassed for larger, more profitable service areas.”

Thousands of rural – and not even so rural – residents here in northern Minnesota can attest to that. We have seen it firsthand.

This happened also before, in the 1930s, when for-profit utilities had the ability to provide electricity to rural communities, but often chose to preserve their profits by building power lines only in areas more populated.

Nonprofit power co-ops then escalated – and they still can today for broadband, Moe argued in his article.

“Electricity cooperatives already have essential infrastructure in place,” he wrote. “Minnesota’s 44 distribution co-ops serve 1.7 million Minnesota in 87 counties and operate the state’s largest distribution network with more than 135,000 miles of power lines. Minnesota’s power co-ops can be part of the solution to bridging the digital divide. The cooperative business model, existing infrastructure and proven history make electric cooperatives natural champions for the deployment of broadband in rural America. “

Already, Arrowhead Electric in Lutsen has rolled out broadband for its members through a partnership with Consolidated Telephone Company, Krista Benjamin, director of education and communications for the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, reported last week on the page opinion piece from the News Tribune.

For more co-ops to follow suit, a little help from St. Paul will be needed, according to Moe. Legislation is sought this session to allow current electric utility easements to be applied to broadband, rather than requiring co-ops to have the tedious and prohibitive task of signing an additional easement agreement with each landowner.

Electric cooperatives are of course not the only solution to solving our broadband problems. We also learned that during our year of isolation or connecting almost entirely via the web. Perhaps the telephone companies could also benefit from legislation similar to what co-ops are looking for. Perhaps companies receiving state or federal subsidies to develop broadband could be banned from choosing their paths.

The legislatures of at least 18 other states have already passed laws helping electric co-ops take a more active role in solving broadband problems. “It’s time for Minnesota to join this group,” Moe wrote.

As long as Minnesota will also continue to consider all the ideas and strategies to break down the barriers preventing a true wide border-to-border strip.

Electrical service was successfully extended to every home a century ago. There is no reason that reliable and strong internet connections should not be next.



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