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Letter: Region needs better broadband to reach fullest potential

By Kathleen Annett, President and CEO, Blandin Foundation, Hutchinson

The author William Gibson writes, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” So true when it comes to broadband, especially.

Given Minnesota’s many opportunities and challenges — in economy, health care, education and public life — it is easy to see how access and use of high-speed internet is essential for progress. Yet absent adequate broadband, existing opportunity gaps across our state will continue to widen.

High-speed internet availability maps show that nearly all of the state’s un- and underserved areas are in rural communities. In southwestern Minnesota, more than 30 percent of residents still do not have internet access that meets state standards.

The 2016 Border-to-Border state broadband grant awards are proof that Minnesota’s communities and community-minded providers are ready and able to put partnerships and investments to work to build world-class broadband networks, generating huge returns on public investment in both access and use. There is no shortage of vision and passion in rural Minnesota.

For example, the most recent round of state broadband grant awards will bring improved internet access to more than 1,000 businesses and nearly 500 households in Nobles County. Revenue from the project will ultimately fund fiber projects throughout the entire county.

The Westbrook school system, which has struggled to provide internet for students, will be able to offer students improved speed and new distance-learning opportunities.

In Morgan, home to Minnesota’s annual Farmfest, farms will now have access to the bandwidth needed to support precision agriculture, thanks to a state grant to RS Fiber, a new coop formed by local people inspired to do together what they can’t do alone.

These projects illustrate how southwest Minnesotans have blended community leadership, public investment and responsive providers to bring broadband-fueled opportunities to their region. It is a similar story statewide, where in three funding rounds to date, the state’s broadband grants program has supported more than 73 projects serving more than 25,000 households.

Blandin Foundation has had the great privilege, since 2003, to stand with dozens of rural Minnesota communities as they imagine and claim futures that are healthy, resilient and connected. After many years of partnership building, it is thrilling to see the impact of the state’s grants program in communities that have done the hard work to prepare to put the public funds to good use.   

Congratulations to leaders both at the local and state levels who stood up and took the risks so that all Minnesotans could have a more connected, vibrant future.

Of course, we still have work to do. Communities need high-speed Internet access to reach their fullest potential. We must not stop until border-to-border broadband is a reality for all rural Minnesotans.

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