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Matt Schmit: Broadband is essential service for many

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Imagine lacking electricity or telephone service at your home or business. Admittedly, it’s a hard thing to do. Not long ago, though, the services we now view as essential utilities were anything but.

While today we take for granted this type of connectivity, many Minnesotans still lack reliable access to the essential technology of our day — broadband Internet.

In recent years high-speed broadband has become the key platform for applications in telehealth, distance learning, e-commerce, and precision agriculture — just to name a few. Broadband is an economic driver with limitless potential, allowing people to connect and businesses to compete in new and meaningful ways. For Greater Minnesota, broadband connectivity makes traditional barriers of time, distance, and resources obsolete.

Broadband is the great transformative technology of the 21st Century, linking people and ideas like the intercontinental railroad and interstate highway systems did generations before. Without a doubt, broadband is on par with electrification in promising improved quality of life: for children, the world becomes a classroom; for adults, telework and flex schedules become reality; for the elderly, remaining in one’s home later in life becomes a choice. Again, these are just a few examples of broadband’s reach.

Of course, the vital importance of reliable broadband connectivity to economic growth and quality of life is nothing new. Neither is our state’s struggle to keep up. Over the past decade Minnesota has named three separate governor’s task forces on the subject. We’ve identified policy recommendations and set statewide speed goals. Our local providers and cooperatives have invested in new technology and infrastructure to meet rising demand for faster service and new applications. Yet, in many parts of the state this hasn’t been enough.

Communities across Minnesota have recognized deficiencies in local broadband infrastructure and service — and nonprofits have directed increased attention to getting communities the connectivity they need. Collectively, these efforts have produced great studies and meaningful public dialogue, but far too little action.

Since November I’ve met with nearly 20 communities around the state interested in improving broadband connectivity for their residents, businesses, schools, libraries, and hospitals. The findings have been clear:

Despite the best efforts of our local providers and cooperatives, poor broadband connectivity remains a real problem in many parts of the state.

For too many of our communities and rural areas, scarce resources and limited private return-on-investment, as well as outdated and unclear state laws, serve as barriers to improved broadband connectivity.

Folks are ready to do something about it.

The 2014 legislative session presents us with a timely opportunity: let’s use this “unsession” to rewrite key provisions of our telecom law that serve as needless barriers and don’t translate to 21st Century life; and let’s extend our state investment in infrastructure to the vital infrastructure of our day: broadband.

Many states have stepped up to meet this challenge; Minnesota should, too.

Matt Schmit, DFL, represents Minnesota’s 21st Senate District.


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