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$200M needed to boost MN rural broadband, lawmakers propose just $17M

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The amount needed to improve rural broadband access in Minnesota? $200 million. The highest amount proposed by lawmakers Wednesday? $17 million.

On a day of frenzied debate in Minnesota's Senate and House, lawmakers made their way through countless bills prior to the current legislative session's close on May 17, and rural broadband was one of the big bills up for discussion.

But the figures being talked about were well short of the $200 million of infrastructure investment recommended by a task force set up by Gov. Mark Dayton to connect rural Minnesotans without access to high-speed broadband.

In the end, the Democrat-led Senate only agreed to a bill providing $17 million towards rural broadband, the Republican-led House recommending $10 million, the Albert Lea Tribune reports, which are not only short of the $200 million, but also the $30 million Dayton had asked for in his budget.

The Pioneer Press reports there were attempts to increase this amount, with Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, attempting to take $10 million from the state's film and television board to put towards broadband, but this was beaten 31-30.

Meanwhile in the House, Rep. Erik Simonson, D-Duluth, went for an ambitious increase in broadband spending of $148 million, but was told this did not fit into House budget levels, so no vote was taken.

The Star Tribune's northern writer and Minnesota Brown blogger Aaron Brown has previously argued that failing to invest in rural broadband infrastructure would be a "historically epic mistake."

He said in a comment piece for the newspaper Thursday bringing high-speed broadband to rural areas is inevitable for Minnesota, but the longer the debate continues over it, the more damage it will do to affected communities.

Rep. Pat Garofolo, R-Farmington, argued earlier this month that a hardwired broadband system is too expensive to roll out to the entire state, MPR reports, and said focus should instead be on investing in (cheaper) wireless and satellite broadband technology.

Greater Minnesota Partnership executive director Dan Dorman told the Albert Lea Tribune he hopes the final figure for rural broadband improvements in this legislative session will be above $20 million, once it has been discussed in conference committee.

A comment in the West Central Tribune this week argues that without faster broadband speeds, "rural Minnesota will continue to fall behind in broadband access and, in turn, the critical factors of quality of life, education, economic opportunities, access to health care and many other positive benefits."

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