COVID-19 Spotlights MN Rural Broadband Woes

Mike Moen

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Starting Wednesday, Minnesota public schools will be closed for several days, and more people will work remotely because of coronavirus concerns. That has renewed calls for more broadband internet access in rural areas.

The state recently announced additional investments to establish more high-speed internet networks for rural residents and businesses. Nathan Zacharias, government relations liaison at the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, said while that extra money is helpful, there still will be areas where folks will struggle to work or learn remotely during this period of restricted public gatherings.

“We’re going to see more pressure and more stress with the COVID-19 outbreak,” Zacharias said. “And that’s putting pressure and stress on all our institutions, and it’s going to show that, really, broadband is no different than some of the other basic services that people need.”

Zacharias said it means some people won’t be able to check or send important e-mails, in addition to missing out on video conferences.

The coalition estimates 17% of Minnesotans lack broadband access. In 2019, the Legislature approved $40 million in grants to address the issue. And the coalition hopes an additional $30 million will be approved in 2020 to help close the remaining gap.

As for remote learning, the education department lists more than 35 online programs on its website that target many areas across the state. But officials say learning outside the classroom won’t just involve the internet.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said school districts are being urged to get creative in planning for a long-term situation

“We are not accommodating a couple snow days, we are planning for the potential of weeks of distance-learning delivery,” Ricker said.

In making the announcement Sunday, Gov. Tim Walz noted the open question of how remote learning would impact areas where there’s a gap in broadband access. He said that issue, along with other potential factors such as providing care for children of health-care workers and meals for low-income students, will be factored into the immediate planning.

Ricker also said she’ll hold talks with leaders of the state’s public-library systems to see how they can help kids keep learning while they are away from the classroom.

Steve Grove heads the Department of Employment and Economic Development. He said while they continue to push lawmakers to provide emergency assistance to businesses and their employees, they hope companies will be mindful of staff in tight situations.

“We know that employers are already demonstrating extraordinary creativity during this time of crisis, and we ask that they continue to be collaborative and creative and help parents navigate school closures,” Grove said.

That could include providing flexibility to workers who don’t have the capability or technology to work from home.

And while temporary solutions are found for remote learning and working, the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition hopes policymakers don’t lose sight of long-term needs. Zacharias said while progress has been made, there’s still a lot of work to do.

“You don’t build a road overnight, and you certainly don’t build a broadband network overnight either,” Zacharias said.

He said projects started through grants awarded from the recent round of funding won’t begin until this spring or summer. And he said the new coronavirus sheds light on the need to ensure all state residents are connected when an emergency arises.