- Associated Press - Thursday, May 15, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Supporters of expanded broadband in rural Minnesota claimed victory Thursday as the Legislature appeared ready to set aside $20 million for their cause.

The amount was far short of the $100 million they proposed, but the money included in a supplemental budget bill was seen as a first step on a critical need. Votes were expected as early as Friday.

“It’s a down payment on what needs to be a sustained investment in positioning Minnesota as a leader in 21st century infrastructure,” said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, a key backer of improved broadband. “Too many Minnesotans are lacking that basic access.”

Schmit and others estimate 500,000 Minnesotans can’t get high-speed Internet, defined as download speeds of 10-20 megabits per second and upload speeds of 5-10 megabits. Schmit said that puts them behind in such areas as telemedicine, education and business development, particularly one that relies heavily on the Internet.

Minnesota had set a goal of universal access by 2015, but won’t make it, Schmit said.

Dan Dorman, who lobbied for the bill on behalf of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, says improved broadband came up as the top issue on a statewide listening tour in the past few months.

“I think it’s a historic first step to make sure our businesses can compete with anyone, whether it’s South Dakota or South Korea,” he said.

A task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton had earlier recommended the larger $100 million investment. Dayton issued a statement Thursday praising the $20 million set aside, saying it would get the state closer to a border-to-border access to high-speed Internet.

The money would be doled out in the form of grants, with applicants required to come up with some matching money. No single grant could exceed $5 million, Schmit said..

Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the state Office of Broadband Development, said if the money is confirmed that applications would be taken before the end of the year.