ST. PAUL — Thirty-nine projects across Minnesota meant to bring internet access to the masses will split a total of $20.6 million in grant funding, state officials announced Thursday, Jan. 28

Broadband infrastructure projects funded in the latest round of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development's broadband grant program range from Lyon County in the southwest part of the state to St. Louis County in the northeast. Local funding will this year match the grants at $33.6 million.

"The projects we are announcing today will bring high-quality broadband access to under-served and unserved areas of Minnesota, providing fast, reliable internet access for over 6,900 businesses and homes," Angie Dickison, executive director of DEED's Office of Broadband Development, said on a press call Thursday.

Approximately $20 million in grant funding was set aside for both the 2020 and 2021 rounds of the program by the Legislature in 2019 amid a larger state government effort to make high-speed internet more widely accessible. As of last year, nearly 88% of Minnesota homes and businesses were able to purchase internet service with download speeds of 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of 20 Mbps from at least one provider.

Discount the Twin Cities metro area, however, and only about 73% of households and businesses could say the same, according to a recent DEED report. The state is shooting for all homes and businesses to have access to at least one provider offering such speeds by 2026.

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The importance of reliable internet access has lately been underscored by the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many workers and school students to live and learn from home. In a statement Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz said the health crisis "has made it crystal clear that fast, reliable broadband access is critical for people living in Greater Minnesota -- for everything from education and health care to business operations and telecommuting."

For some developers, the grants make projects feasible in rural areas where they otherwise wouldn't be, Mediacom Group Vice President for Minnesota Bill Jensen said on Thursday's call. The company this year will get approximately $600,000 for a project expanding internet access in Hermantown, just outside of Duluth, and another grant for $190,000 to put toward a project in Hennepin County.

"When we talk about expanding services. . . it’s important that there are people out there, enough homes, to justify the investment," he said.

Jensen added that, on the flipside, improved internet access can also make rural areas more attractive to companies looking to relocate.