ST. PAUL — Minnesota broadband development advocates on Wednesday, Feb. 20, made their case for keeping a program that provides state dollars to match private investments in building out the infrastructure for high-speed internet.

And they asked lawmakers to back a proposal to boost state funding to fill gaps in internet coverage in pockets of rural Minnesota.

The requests came a day after Gov. Tim Walz proposed spending $70 million to expand high-speed internet access across the state by 2022. And it's one of the proposals to which Republicans and Democrats in the state's split Legislature agree.

Since the state set the goal to get border-to-border broadband by 2022, a state grant program has spent $85.6 million to support 110 projects across the state, which boosted internet access to more than 33,000 people, more than 5,000 businesses and 300 institutions.

The match program has offered a good start in patching together broadband access, but there's still work to be done to reach some of the most remote areas of the state, Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development said Wednesday, Feb. 20.

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“We’re getting into areas that are harder to serve,” MacKenzie said.

And there is a growing pipeline of requests in the cue as the Office of Broadband Development was left with no new funding for the grants last year when then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed an omnibus spending bill that included new money.

"Without the state’s grant, I’m not sure we would've ever built out to those customers," Mary Ehmke, president of Kasson-based KMTelecom, said. The company got a 2017 grant to bring high-speed internet to Mantorville. “There’s still a lot more to do.”

Ninety-one percent of homes statewide have access to the internet speeds the state hopes to connect statewide in the next two years. In rural Minnesota, 80 percent of households have that access. And the state is still working with private companies to get the remaining 185,000 households that lack that connection up to speed by 2022.

Businesses in those hard-to-reach areas have struggled to make it with slow or nonexistent internet access. And students have been unable to do their homework because they can't access assignments online.

“A lack of broadband in rural Minnesota is really creating achievement gaps,” Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, said. “Once they leave that campus they do not have equal opportunity.”