Over the past several years, rural legislators have been working to draw attention to a growing disparity in the availability of telecommunications technology that many, if not most, urban consumers take for granted—reliable access to competitive wireless phone service and high-speed Internet connections. Most readers likely assume availability of this technology, which is becoming ubiquitous in our work life and personal life. For rural communities and consumers, however, access to any form of high-speed Internet service is closer to a dream than reality—for them, dial-up service remains the norm which is very slow and not capable of supporting data-intensive service requirements. A task force empanelled last year by the legislature has proposed far-reaching recommendations to change this reality for accessing high-speed broadband services; pending legislation would establish the goal that every Minnesota community have such access by no later than 2015.

Legislation authored by Representative Sheldon Johnson and Senator Yvonne Prettner Solon would require the Minnesota Department of Commerce to report annually on progress made toward achieving the following objectives:

  • Increasing broadband Internet speeds to a minimum of 10 megabits per second for downloads and 5 megabits per second for uploads;
  • Establishing Minnesota among the top 5 states nationally for speed and access to broadband Internet; and
  • Establishing Minnesotan’s broadband access as comparable to that of the top 15 nations.

Legislators and rural advocates correctly argue that gaining access to state-of-the-art telecommunications services is critical to the survival of rural communities and businesses in a global economy. Young people who feel isolated by the absence of technology used while traveling or at college, are less likely to return home to establish a business or career. Entrepreneurs are less likely to invest in their business in a rural setting if they are not able to access telecommunications services essential to growth by efficiently accessing suppliers and customers from around the world. Finally, a lack of access to high-speed broadband will impede efforts to establish tele-medicine services for rural communities that may lack a hospital or even a doctor.

A new 15-member panel would advise the Commerce Department and legislature on opportunities for achieving the goals established by the legislation.

Hearings on the bill will occur in both bodies in the coming weeks of the session.