Chisago Co., Leech Lake, Rosemount among those getting latest broadband help

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Gov. Walz speaks at podium
Gov. Tim Walz announces new funding for broadband projects across the state during a news conference on Tuesday in St. Paul.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

New Minnesota grants will assist broadband projects from Houston County in the far south to Kittson County up north as the state attempts to reach a goal of universal access two years from now.

Gov. Tim Walz and the Department of Employment and Economic Development on Tuesday announced the fifth round of state assistance to local projects to bring reliable internet connections to underserved areas. They said 30 projects will share in about $23 million in aid.

But Walz said even with those awards, another 50 projects got left out for lack of funding. The DFL governor said he’ll push to boost the broadband account by up to $30 million in the upcoming legislative session.

“We all know this is far more than just a nice-to-have thing or Netflix streaming in your home,” Walz said at a Capitol news conference. “This is an economic development tool. It’s absolutely critical to equity in education and opportunities across the state of Minnesota.”

Nancy Hoffman, executive director of the Chisago County Economic Development Authority, said past broadband expansions have done “wonders for our county.” Another $1.7 million will assist Nessel Township in the county improve service to 1,000 locations.

“To help students with their education. With patients who need to access health care, especially in rural areas. Businesses can reach their customers and their vendors and send large files,” Hoffman said. “We have farmers who amazingly use the internet to fertilize their fields and plant crops with precision.”

This is the fifth round of broadband grants. Another $20 million has been set aside for next year.

The individual grants must be matched by local money. The latest awards range from $50,000 to almost $2.9 million. Three tribal governments won help with projects on their reservations: Bois Forte, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Leech Lake.

Minnesota has work left to do before it reaches a high-speed internet goal.

State law calls for all homes and businesses to have access to internet with 25 megabits per second download speeds and three megabits per second upload speed by 2022.

DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said the state is 93 percent toward the first goal and 86 percent toward the second. But by 2026, the state aims for even faster speeds — 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.

A state task force is working to recommend ways to get Minnesota to its goals faster.

“It’s the last mile that’s the most difficult and it’s the last percentage points that are the most difficult because those that remain are truly the hardest to get to,” Grove said. “When you see pictures of guys out the field and the teams out in the field putting the lines in, they are trenching through water, climbing through really stony rock. It’s really tough work to get these lines in the ground.”