Nearly $100M in grants will fund broadband expansion in rural Minnesota, Walz says – Twin Cities

Rural broadband projects across Minnesota are set to receive nearly $100 million as the state pushes to bring high-speed internet to the more than 200,000 households in the remaining communities that don’t have access.

Gov. Tim Walz’s office on Thursday announced that the $99.6 million in state and federal funding for broadband through the Border-to-Border Broadband program is the “largest single investment” in Minnesota’s history. The Department of Employment and Economic Development, which administers the program, estimates 33,000 additional households in mostly rural areas of the state will gain high-speed internet access through the projects.

“Broadband is the plumbing of the 21st century — without it, businesses and households can’t participate in today’s economy,” DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said in a news release. “We’re proud to work with broadband providers and offer these historic grants that will empower more growth and more equity in our state.”

As remote work and learning, and telehealth have become the norm, high-speed internet has increasingly become an essential service. Telehealth access is particularly important for rural residents who may not have the same level of access to health care as people who live in cities. While most can access the service in cities and towns, there are still significant gaps in rural areas. DEED estimates there are anywhere between 240,000 and 291,000 households in the state that still lack access to broadband. About 92% of Minnesota has broadband access, Grove said, and new federal money will mean more coverage in places the service has yet to reach.

Grove said the broadband issue is a priority of Walz’s administration and that it’s time for the state to “finish the job.” However, as more of the state gets wired for speedy internet, the remaining locations are the most-difficult ones to reach.

“For every percent we get closer to full coverage, it gets a little bit harder, because it is tough to bring broadband internet access to some of the more rural parts of our state,” Grove said. “There are geographical concerns, there are commercial concerns that the market has to ensure that the companies can make this worth it for themselves. And that’s where our broadband program really comes in.”

Sixty-one projects in 48 Minnesota counties have been approved for broadband grants, of which $70 million comes from federal funding from the American Rescue Plan. The other main source of funding is half of a $50 million appropriation from the Legislature, according to Walz’s office.

Grove said the $99.6 million announced Thursday is the first round of broadband grants, and his department is set to begin taking requests for the next round of broadband funding on Dec 19. That round will have another $25 million in state money and $42.6 in federal funding.

The current round of grants accounts for a significant portion of what the Border-to-Border Broadband program has paid out. The program has given out about $130 million since it started in 2014, Grove said.

Two projects in northeastern Minnesota’s St. Louis County are set to receive a total of more than $7.9 million — more than any other county in the state. Consolidated Telephone Co., which serves Cass and St. Louis counties, is also set to receive a grant of more than $4.8 million.

Other counties with projects include: Aitkin, Beltrami Benton, Carlton, Crow Wing, Dodge, Douglas, Kandiyohi, Marshall, Olmsted, Otter Tail, Polk, Pope and Wilkin.

Grantees could receive a maximum of $5 million per project and can cover up to half the costs. Expansion projects must meet or exceed the state’s 2026 broadband speed goals of 100 megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload.

Minnesota Office of Broadband Development Director Bree Maki encouraged Minnesota residents with questions about their broadband speeds and access to reach out to their service providers. More information on the grants, including a complete list of recipients, can be found on the DEED website.

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