Within the state's largest school district geographically, distance learning has been difficult.
“Our kids can't connect to the Zoom meeting or they have trouble sending their assignments because of poor service,” Reggie Engebritson, superintendent of the St. Louis County school district said. “This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.”
Poor internet isn't just a major problem within the rural St. Louis County school system
Students across the entire county of St. Louis have among the poorest internet connectivity in the state.
Less than 50 percent of school district households within the county have access to wireline broadband, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Office of Broadband Development maps.
However, six northeastern Minnesota state legislators and one from Moorhead, are hoping to speed up connectivity for students, homes and businesses throughout the state.
A bill introduced at the Minnesota Legislature is calling for a $120 million state investment in high-speed broadband.
Senate File 22 asks for a broadband investment of $60 million in fiscal year 2022 and $60 million in fiscal year 2023.
Sen.'s Tom Bakk of Cook and Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm are co-authors of the bill.
“I've never carried it before,” Bakk said of the bill. “But when these schools shut down, it was never more apparent how bad the internet was around the state.”
Rep. Dave Lislegard of Aurora, Rep. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing, Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls, Rep. Mike Sundin of Esko, and Rep. Heather Keeler of Moorhead, are co-authors of HF 14, the companion bill in the House of Representatives.
Bringing high-speed broadband to all homes and businesses in the state remains a work in progress.
Large portions of the state, including huge areas of northeastern Minnesota, remain classified as unserved or underserved.
A Range Association of Municipalities and Schools broadband mapping project found a vast majority of the 2,100 students in the St. Louis County school district have limited access to high-speed quality broadband. An estimated 80 percent of district students have service of less than 25 megabits download and 3 megabits upload.
“Distance learning is not going to go away,” Engebritson said. “Once the pandemic is over, we have an opportunity to continue to teach kids who are home sick, but well enough to still attend school over the internet, or who have mental health issues and struggle to be in school and could connect via the internet. But if we don't have adequate service for our families, then these students lose out.”
With increased numbers of students and parents across the state working from home, northeastern Minnesota legislators say the need for more high-speed broadband is urgent.
“Especially with the pandemic, we are seeing the need in distance learning and in public health,” Ecklund said. “It's probably made it more imperative than ever.”
Massive portions of St. Louis County remain unserved, according to Minnesota Office of Broadband Development maps.
Unserved is defined as having no wireline broadband of at least 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload.
Large areas of St. Louis County are also underserved, meaning wireline broadband of at least 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload, but less than 100 megabits per second download and 25 megabits per second upload.
In Itasca County, several recent high-speed broadband projects have brought high-speed broadband to northwest and southeast portions of the county. But northeast and southwest areas of the county remain classified as unserved.
“We've learned how bad it really is due to COVID,” Tomassoni said. “We've been spending $20 million to $40 million a year, but there's still a lot of people that need to be reached. This is a must-do as far as I'm concerned this year in the legislature.”
Almost all of Koochiching Country is unserved.
“We've got some spots that are really good like in Littlefork, Bigfork and Northome,” Ecklund said. “But you get west of International Falls and the options are terrible”
By 2026, all homes and businesses in the state are to have access to at least one provider with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload of at least 20 megabits per second.
State lawmakers allocated $20 million to be spent in 2019 and another $20 million in 2020 for broadband development, Ecklund said.
In December, the Federal Communication Commissions announced a $409 million grant to Minnesota to be used over the next 10 years for high-speed broadband expansion.
Combined with the proposed $120 million, northeastern Minnesota legislators hope broadband gets up to speed for all Minnesotans.
“We need to treat rural broadband like we did electrification,” Ecklund said. “Until then, it's not going to be equitable.”
Bakk said he is making broadband funding a priority this session.
“I just think it's a good time to do it because of this whole crisis with kids having no internet,” Bakk said. “If it's about 'One Minnesota,' we need to get these areas connected.”