Broadband spending plans vary greatly

ST. PAUL -- Republican Minnesota representatives propose spending $35 million to expand broadband high-speed Internet in the state, far less than Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats want.

ST. PAUL - Republican Minnesota representatives propose spending $35 million to expand broadband high-speed Internet in the state, far less than Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats want.

“Minnesotans are going to see a historic amount of broadband investment this year,” Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said Wednesday as he and other Republicans outlined their plan.
While most of the $35 million, to be spent over two or more years, would go to expanding the high-speed network, $7 million would be earmarked for schools: $5 million in grants to provide broadband wireless hotspots and $2 million would help increase broadband capacity.
Republicans said that some hotspot money would be used to provide devices that students lacking high-speed Internet at home can borrow, and other hotspots would be installed on school buses so students can be connected while going to and from school and activities.
Kresha said the plan is to take the Internet “right to the kids.”
“The great equalizer for education for all of our children really is having access to high-speed Internet,” added House Education Chairwoman Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie.
The $28 million portion would be used in an on-going effort to provide high-speed Internet in all of the state. Rural areas, in particular, lack speeds needed to conduct much online work.
About $35 million in federal funds will be sent to Minnesota each of the next five years and private broadband-related businesses are providing their own money, too.

The state portion of funding could come from other unspecified programs in the Republican proposal and from a projected state budget surplus under Democratic plans.
Rural Republicans who laid out the plan stopped short of saying they would reject more broadband money if it becomes available in negotiations before the May 23 session adjournment deadline. Kresha said that Dayton does not spell out how he would spend the $100 million he has targeted for broadband, and Dayton himself has said it might not be spent in a year.
“The governor’s approach has always been a dollar amount ...” Kresha said. “We have put solutions together.”
Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, a former teacher and coach, was especially happy about the money to bring Internet signal to buses.
“There is not nearly as much makeup work,” he said after wi-fi has been added to some buses.
On one route he knows about, wi-fi was added to a bus that had experienced discipline problems. The issue disappeared once Internet was available, Fabian said.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said technology is changing fast, so the fiber optic cables now being laid soon could be replaced by wireless signal. That was one reason Republicans hesitated putting more money into broadband.
“Wireless is unbelievable coming online ...” Baker said. “They are going to be able to carry more speed than you can imagine.”
Democrats called the GOP plan “malarkey.”
Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said Republicans want to spend too little, adding the GOP plan “will not level the economic playing field for greater Minnesota.”
In 29 counties, Marquart said, half of the homes do not have access to fast enough Internet. “That puts rural Minnesota at a huge economic disadvantage. ... We are not second-class citizens out there.”
Rep. John Persell, D-Bemidji, said that the rural economy needs to be rebuilt. “This is part of it for rural Minnesota.”
If too little is spent, he added, “at the rate we are going ... most of those kids will be out of school before we see it in my part of the state”
Another Democrat, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, also said Republicans fell short.
“At the level of investment they are proposing, the 244,000 households in greater Minnesota without broadband connections will wait decades to get up to speed,” Smith said. “This is bad for our economy, bad for greater Minnesota, and we need to do better.”

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