Minnesota broadband expansion plan includes take-home wi-fi hotspots for students

- One of the biggest funding fights at the Minnesota Capitol this spring is something many people take for granted in the Twin Cities metro: internet access. In rural Minnesota, too many areas still don’t have enough coverage or high speeds.

Laying down hardline and fiber takes a lot of money, but it also takes a lot of time. That’s why Republicans are making the argument to use wireless as a quick way of getting broadband in the hands of rural residents, especially students.

When Shakopee students now board the bus, they’re able to finish their classwork on the way home. Each bus now carries wireless internet access – a game-changer for many students.

“Having wi-fi on the bus actually cuts down on my homework because I have time to actually do my homework,” said Shelly Phung, a student at Shakopee West Junior High. “And when I get home I’m spending time with my family instead of doing homework all the time.” 

In many parts of rural Minnesota, schools and public libraries are among the few access points for reliable high speed broadband access. House Republicans argue a quick solution is to provide money for schools to supply wireless hot-spots for students to check out and bring home.

“Whether you’re up in northern Minnesota, or southern Minnesota or central Minnesota, and you’re in a rural area and broadband hasn’t been able to reach you yet, we’re going to find a way to get there,” said Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls).

House Republicans are proposing a total package of $35 million, with $7 million going to school grants for hot-spots and bus wi-fi. But $15 million of that is also pushed out into 2017. Democrats call it funny-money.

“Really? That’s just baffling you with malarkey,” said Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul).

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith criticized the Republican plan saying, it will “barely make a dent in the need for high-speed, affordable access in greater Minnesota.” But Republicans argue it at least helps equalize education at a faster pace -- something even suburban students can appreciate.

Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed $100 million for rural broadband. The Senate pledged $85 million in its budget targets. Both are far off the House Republican plan.

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