House broadband bill: Less money than Governor’s proposal, even fewer cities would qualify

This afternoon, the House Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee held a hearing on H.F. 2381 (authored by Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar), which would appropriate $35 million to the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program. This proposal is $65 million less than the $100 million that Gov. Dayton is seeking for the program.

While the GMNP is supportive of broadband funding, we have concerns about the eligibility requirements as they currently exclude most medium and large-sized cities from qualifying for grants (in fact, the largest city that currently qualifies has fewer than 3,400 residents). The changes to the program under H.F. 2381 would make it so that even fewer cities would qualify. A provision in the bill would create a right of first refusal for incumbent broadband providers. According to Chris Mitchell, a nationally renowned broadband expert and the director of Community Broadband Networks for the Institute of Local Self-Reliance — and one of the testifiers on the bill — this provision would result in “lackluster” investments from the private sector. The bill would also further reduce the ability of broadband grants to be used as a tool for economic development.

Austin City Administrator Craig Clark testified in support of a GMNP-backed amendment to the bill which would expand the economic development potential of broadband grants. However, the amendment was voted down.

H.F. 2381 passed out of the committee on a voice vote. Although we are not happy with the current language, we hope the bill will be refined as it goes through the legislative process so that it can be more favorable to cities who hope to improve their broadband service.