Will the federal government help Minnesotans get better broadband?

Lake Shore student Nick Moore works on an assignment near his family's hotspot. Without access to broadband, the family of five relies on the hotspot for school and work while schools are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of Kathy Moore

WASHINGTON — In one Minnesota tribal community, children recently had to gather in the front yard of a nearby house so they could access the internet and do their homework.

That’s according to Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The Democrat recounted the story Wednesday during a U.S. Senate hearing on internet access during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We just can’t have that continue into the summer and into the rest of the year,” she said.

Klobuchar and other senators called on Congress to take immediate and long-term action to narrow disparities in broadband access during a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Klobuchar and several other senators participated remotely via high-speed internet connections.

Internet use has shot up during the pandemic, as Americans use it to work and learn remotely, access health care, buy groceries and participate in civic and social life.

But millions of Americans lack access to quality high-speed internet service, and many more could lose it if they are unable to pay broadband bills because of lost income or jobs. The problem is especially dire in rural areas, underserved communities and tribal lands.

Minnesota is home to seven Ojibwe reservations and four Dakota communities.

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The state ranks 20th in the nation when it comes to internet coverage, speed and price, according to a report by BroadbandNow Research. Overall, about 90 percent of Minnesotans have access to land-based broadband coverage.

But coverage varies widely across counties, dropping to as low as 45 percent in Kittson County along the U.S.-Canada border and 46 percent in Yellow Medicine County in the southwestern part of the state, home to the Dakota Oyate Nation.

In March, President Donald Trump signed legislation to improve FCC broadband maps as well as a $2 trillion package that included funding for rural broadband deployment.

Addressing the ‘digital divide’

But Klobuchar and others said much more needs to be done to address the “digital divide.”

On Tuesday, House Democrats unveiled a $3 trillion coronavirus response package that includes $4 billion to help low-income families pay internet service bills and $1.5 billion to support distance learning. It also takes steps to support communications among first responders, incarcerated populations and people experiencing mental health crises.

The sweeping legislation met swift resistance from Senate Republicans, who said in a press conference Tuesday that it had virtually no chance of passage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called instead for “narrowly targeted” legislation that addresses specific problems related to the pandemic.

That did not deter Klobuchar and others from urging Congress to take additional steps to shore up the nation’s broadband infrastructure in the short and long terms.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At Wednesday’s hearing, Klobuchar pushed for a bill she introduced in March that would create a federal fund to support small broadband providers that provide free or discounted broadband services or upgrades to low-income families. Her fellow Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, also a Democrat, has signed on to the measure, as have more than two dozen other senators from both parties.

Three Minnesota House lawmakers — Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson, Angie Craig and Ilhan Omar — have signed on to a House version of the bill.

“The last thing we want to do in rural areas right now is to cut off service,” Klobuchar said.

The bill would essentially extend the spirit of a pledge many communications companies have made during the pandemic to continue to provide broadband service, said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of an association of rural broadband providers.

Under the pledge, companies have promised to temporarily avoid service disruptions, waive late fees and open up hotspots to all Americans. Some have also lifted data caps, offering free or discounted services and taking other steps to support continued access.

But they can’t continue to do so indefinitely without support, Bloomfield said. “Think about it as essential services,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to continue to support the network.”

Klobuchar also said she wants to enhance internet access for older people — a vulnerable and especially isolated population — and for college and university students in financial need, particularly those of color.

“Here they are having worked so hard to get into college and now they’re unable to compete and be part of that college experience if they don’t have the internet,” she said.

Klobochar also called attention to underutilization of the FCC’s “lifeline” program, which gives low-income subscribers discounts on telephone service, internet access or bundled services. “That’s something that we want to continue to focus on,” she said.