GMNP Board adopts policy position in support of making more cities eligible for broadband grants

The Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program provides grants to broadband providers to extend or upgrade their systems. In order to qualify, projects must be awarded to areas with no or very poor broadband service. The GMNP has been concerned about the definition of “no or poor service” due to the limited economic development impact of excluding much of Greater Minnesota from the program.

Noticing that the first two rounds of grant awards were weighted heavily toward sparsely populated areas, staff reached out to the Office of Broadband Development, which provided a list of the 204 cities that would qualify under the current grant program. Only one city on the list has more than 3,000 residents. This was clearly not the intent of the GMNP or the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) when we initiated the grant program. It also runs counter to one of DEED’s goals for the program, which is to provide grants to “underserved” areas to help boost economic development.

The CGMC and GMNP have repeatedly supported program criteria that would allow grants to be awarded to projects that target unserved and/or underserved areas. This balances a desire to connect everyone in the state (“unserved”) with a desire for the state to encourage economic development (“underserved”), producing a significantly larger return on the state’s investment. The largest providers strongly support connecting the most remote, least populous areas first (“unserved”), as it discourages competition. It is now clear that current state speed goals will not result in providing better broadband service to many businesses and residents in Greater Minnesota.

We are concerned that the exclusive focus on extremely small cities and townships will result in more sprawl, employers locating or moving outside cities, and no ability to use state broadband grant funds for economic development opportunities in medium and large communities.

For example, the city of Madison is ineligible for a state broadband grant despite having the worst broadband in Lac qui Parle County. A previously funded federal program upgraded townships around Madison with world-class broadband service, but left the city with its currently inadequate service, as the map included in your meeting materials shows (the yellow portion indicates the availability of high-quality broadband service at or meeting 100 Mbps download / 100 Mbps upload speeds). This “donut hole” effect around cities will increase if no changes are made to the state’s broadband grant program.

Unless changes are made, only 2% of Greater Minnesota residents live in a city that can qualify for a grant. In addition, less than 18% of Greater Minnesota residents live in an area that can be awarded a grant.

In response to this concern, the GMNP Board of Directors approved a new broadband position at its meeting this week (the CGMC Board also adopted a similar policy position at its last meeting on Feb. 2):

The GMNP supports additional funding for the broadband grant program only if cities with less than 100 Mbps download/100 Mbps upload are allowed to qualify for the program. GM supports more money for the program only if underserved and areas under 100 download/100 upload are eligible to receive grants under the program. The GMNP supports raising the state broadband goal to at least 100 Mbps download/100 Mbps upload.

The GMNP hopes to meet with Lt. Governor Tina Smith soon regarding a policy proposal to realign the broadband grant program with its goal of providing world-class service to all Minnesotans, regardless of where they live. We are also reaching out to other broadband advocates, including the League of Minnesota Cities and the Blandin Foundation, to encourage them to embrace more ambitious speed goals as well. Without changes, it is unlikely that the program will be funded at the $100 million level recommended by the Governor.