A proponent of broadband expansion, Senator Matt Schmit represents District 21 in the Minnesota Senate. Elected in 2012, Schmit serves as Vice Chair of the Senate Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, which oversees telecommunications issues. He also sits on the Capital Investment and Energy and Environment policy committees, as well as the Environment, Agriculture, and Economic Development finance division. In addition, he holds the gavel for the Senate Game and Fish Subcommittee. He is active with the National Conference of State Legislatures, sitting on the Telecommunications and Nuclear Legislative work groups, respectively. In 2014 and 2015, Sen Schmit was recognized as a “Legislator of Distinction” by the League of Minnesota Cities for his work championing broadband investment.
We’re grateful for the opportunity to speak with Senator Schmit.
You serve as the Vice Chair of the Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. What can you tell us about the role of this committee in relation to broadband in rural Minnesota?
The Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee has jurisdiction over a number of policy areas important for rural Minnesota, not least of which is telecommunications policy. The committee has shown increasing leadership on this issue in recent years and just recently passed two broadband bills with unanimous bipartisan support. The bills would put into state law: new speed goals recommended by the Governor’s Broadband Task Force calling for service to all Minnesota home sand businesses of at least 25 mbps upload and 3 mbps download (25/3) by 2022, and service of 100 mbps upload and 20 mbps download (100/20) by 2026; for purposes of our broadband fund, continued definition of “unserved” areas as those lacking 25/3 service and updated “underserved” definition as those areas lacking 100/20 service; and, just as important, funding for the broadband fund with $100 million from Minnesota’s one-time budget surplus.
In your research and travels around the country as a proponent of rural broadband, what solutions have you seen in other areas that are working to effectively provide robust broadband services to underserved areas?
Everywhere you look, the challenge and solution are the same: it all boils down to funding essentially infrastructure that does not present adequate short-term return-on-investment for private Internet service providers. The good news is we’ve been here before with the need for rural electrification a century ago. A concerted effort then to extend vital electrical networks changed the economic competitiveness and quality of life for huge swaths of the state and country. Today, we’re dealing with a similar challenge with a similar solution.
The The most important lessons I learned regarding broadband came from our broadband listening tour meetings prior to the 2014 legislative session. In traveling to approximately 20 Minnesota communities and listening to advice from hundreds of Minnesotans who’ve worked on improving broadband access, three themes emerged: (1) Minnesota is a geographically and politically diverse state and any solution to our broadband challenges needs to promote a flexible approach that takes into account local factors; (2) the basic challenge for providers in rural Minnesota relates to lack of private investment capital and a limited return on investment for serving relatively less-populated areas—be it rural farmland or our smaller cities and towns; and (3) Minnesotans are sick of admiring the problem, it’s time to act. These themes directly informed our approach with the border-to-border competitive grant fund—and the urgency with which we’ve proceeded.
You’ve said that Minnesota has taken “two steps forward and one step back” after initially creating the Broadband Office and grant fund, only to reduce funding for round two investment by 50 percent in 2015. Despite campaign promises and pledges of support, a renewed focus on rural Minnesota, a wildly successful first round of broadband funding, and another billion-dollar budget surplus, you’ve also stated that misplaced priorities and misinformation ruled Minnesota’s 2015 legislative session. How can Minnesota avoid this from happening again?
Simply put, the legislature needs to deliver for Greater Minnesota by “funding the fund” in 2016. Despite its initial success in 2014 and significant need throughout the state, the fund was cut by nearly 50 percent in 2015. The 2016 legislative session gives legislators an opportunity to take a significant and necessary step forward on broadband. Rather than recurring tax cuts or new spending initiatives, the one-time nature of the proposed broadband funding is the perfect fit for the one-time reality of our current budget surplus. We can make an important investment in Greater Minnesota economic competitiveness and quality of life without jeopardizing Minnesotan’s hard-sought budget stability.
At the state level, how will you continue to advocate for policies that expand access to broadband?
The past three years have focused on broadband infrastructure as a means to broadband access. After all, physical connectivity to modern networks is a prerequisite for broadband access—and a significant and sustained effort to help Internet service providers extend modern networks to hard-to-serve or otherwise underserved areas must continue in the years ahead. In addition to broadband infrastructure, the legislature will need to take into account how Minnesota policy works to: ensure that proper consumer protections are in place; facilitate utilization of broadband for applications in such areas as e-commerce, distance learning, telehealth, and precision agriculture; and create an environment that best leverages additional funding—be it from private, local or federal sources.
We see firsthand how the power high-speed Internet access can empower communities, and we know people all around the state want to see their government work on what matters to them—modernizing broadband infrastructure to enhance quality of life, education, healthcare, and economic growth. What can the residents of Sherburne County do to help make affordable, accessible broadband a reality?
Indeed, access to high-speed Internet is the great equalizer for Greater Minnesota—removing barriers of distance, time, and geography to allow for a wide variety of end-user applications ranging from e-commerce to distance learning, telehealth to precision agriculture. The single most important thing concerned residents can do is contact their legislators and let them know that broadband access is essential 21st century infrastructure the state should ensure is made available to all Minnesota homes and businesses. Since this is a relatively new issue before the legislature, it’s critically important that legislators know where issue stands in the eyes of the Minnesotans we represent.
Thank you, Senator Schmit!