Editorial - April 2022

Equity in broadband access would benefit all Minnesotans

One lasting lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t taught in classrooms or at makeshift desks in students’ homes. Too many Greater Minnesota pupils found themselves sitting outside of restaurants and coffee shops using Wi-Fi to do their homework. Others had to trek to the end of rural driveways to get internet access, or even sit in the parking lots of their schools. 

While the inequities of internet access for Minnesotans are nothing new, the pandemic has drawn needed attention to the issue. Lack of access is a problem not just for students of all abilities but also for businesses, health care providers, nonprofits, workplaces, places of worships and every level of government. 

Lack of access is a huge equity issue for Minnesotans with disabilities, especially people with low incomes and people who live in rural areas. Lack of internet access, inadequate speeds and affordability leave too many people isolated from services ranging from telehealth calls to city council meetings. And that is just plain wrong. 

Too many Minnesotans with disabilities have historically been forced to leave their home communities and their networks of support for improved services and supports in larger cities. Internet access shouldn’t be one of those services forcing people to move. 

Improved internet access could be the difference between getting an education or being stuck with one’s current skillset. It could mean having a job or no job at all, and being able to apply for employment more easily. Not having to travel for a job interview or leave one’s community to take a job would be a godsend for many in our community. The pandemic has shown us that many people can work remotely. 

Improved internet access could mean participating in one’s community or having decisions made for us and not with us. 

For many people with disabilities in rural areas, being about to have a video chat with a health care professional or counselor is much easier than driving long distances for care. Telehealth increasingly came to the forefront during the pandemic, and helped many people have access to healthcare that they would otherwise have gone without. It needs to stay there as a key health care option. 

A presentation before a Minnesota House committee earlier this year outlined the stark disparities in internet access. About 88.5 percent of Minnesota households have access to high-speed broadband internet service, defined as at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds. That percentage drops to 75 percent in Greater Minnesota. A county-by-county look shows some places with very poor internet access. 

Approximately 240,000 households statewide lack speedy access to the internet. Officials with the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Office of Broadband Development pointed out that extended improved service to many of these households causes challenges. 

Many of the affected households are in sparsely populated areas, which in turn requires extensive infrastructure invest. It’s estimate that achieving complete state broadband coverage has a cost that would top $1.3 billion. 

Recently announced federal funding may be one answer. Another is in the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, which state lawmakers set up in 2014. This program is to be used for grants to acquire and install middle- and last-mile infrastructure for high-speed broadband in unserved and underserved areas. A $70 million allocation is expected to be available in 2022. Grants can pay up to 50 percent of the costs, but that still could leave impoverished communities struggling for matching dollars. 

Gov. Tim Walz has proposed $170 million be targeted to extending broadband access in underserved areas in the state, as part of his supplemental budget. Bills for $120 million are pending in the House and Senate. 

Options exist for improved internet access including cable, digital subscriber line (DSL) connections, fixed wireless connections with antennas, mobile cellular and satellite service. All of these technologies have varying degrees of reliability. But some of these methods aren’t economically viable for rural communities, when serving a small number of customers. 

Broadband appears to be the best option. Local elected officials have compared the broadband situation of that of the 1930s, when the movement for rural electrification brought power to homes and farms still using candlelight and other antiquated measures. 

We hope state and federal makers take into account the needs of Minnesotans with disabilities when looking at broadband access. We’d like to see cost breaks for low-income people with disabilities. Improved service does no good if people cannot afford it. 

We appreciate when Greater Minnesota lawmakers point out that actual speeds delivered to customers are often slower than the speeds that the providers advertise, and that they have questioned the state maps of areas considered “underserved” or and “unserved.”  

For those of us with disabilities, having access to reliable internet service should be the same as having any other utility service. We’d like to see careful scrutiny of actual service along with service improvements, so that there is truly high-speed access for all.