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Viewpoint: To reach potential, southeast MN needs better broadband

By Dr. Kathleen Annette, president and CEO of the Blandin Foundation.

The author William Gibson writes, "The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed." So true when it comes to broadband.

Given Minnesota's many opportunities and challenges — in economy, health care, education and public life — it is easy to see how access and use of high-speed internet is essential for progress. Yet absent adequate broadband, existing opportunity gaps across our state will continue to widen.

High-speed internet availability maps show that nearly all of the state's underserved areas are in rural communities. In southeastern Minnesota, more than 15 percent of residents still do not have internet access that meets state standards.

The 2016 Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program awards are proof that Minnesota's communities and providers are ready and able to put partnerships and investments to work to build world-class broadband networks generating huge returns on public investment in both access and use. There is no shortage of vision and passion in rural Minnesota.

For example, the most recent round of state broadband grant awards will provide telecommuting opportunities for Mayo Clinic and IBM employees through a fiber buildout in rural Lanesboro.

Several farms and home-based businesses in Wabasha County, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture office, Ag Partners, Zumbrota-Mazeppa school system, banks and insurance companies will benefit from a fiber-to-the premise buildout.

A project in near Mantorville, in east-central Dodge County, will bring gigabit service to 195 households, nine businesses and one community anchor institution, including Kasson-Mantorville schools and the local health care system.

These projects illustrate how southeast Minnesotans have blended community leadership, public investment and responsive providers to bring broadband-fueled opportunities to their region. It is a similar story statewide, where in three funding rounds to date, the state's broadband grants program has supported more than 73 projects serving more than 25,000 households.

Blandin Foundation has had the great privilege, since 2003, to stand with dozens of rural Minnesota communities as they imagine and claim futures that are healthy, resilient and connected. After many years of partnership building, it is thrilling to see the impact of the state's grants program in communities that have done the hard work to prepare to put the public funds to good use.

Congratulations to leaders both at the local and state levels who stood up and took the risks so that all Minnesotans could have a more connected and vibrant future.

Of course, we still have work to do. Communities need high-speed internet access to reach their fullest potential and we must not stop until border-to-border broadband is a reality for all rural Minnesotans.