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More broadband access coming to North Dakota

North Dakotans will get more chances to jump on the Internet's fast lane in the next few months, two telecom industry executives said Tuesday in Fargo.

North Dakotans will get more chances to jump on the Internet's fast lane in the next few months, two telecom industry executives said Tuesday in Fargo.

Qwest Communications is installing 12 new mini-hubs, called "stingers," to offer broadband Internet access to 80 percent of North Dakotans, Chairman and CEO Richard Notebaert said.

At the same time, Admiral William Owens, chairman of Extend America, said his company is just weeks away from providing wireless voice and Internet access across the state.

Notebaert and Owens were the keynote speakers for the second and final day of the Upper Great Plains Technology Conference and Trade Show at the Fargodome.

Qwest's new hubs will expand the company's broadband footprint beyond the 15,000 feet from main offices copper wire allows, Notebaert told breakfast attendees.

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The hubs, part of a $100 million investment in Qwest's 14-state service area, will add 12 percent to the company's customer base over last year, he said.

"Customers crave high speed" on the Internet, Notebaert said.

Bismarck-based Extend America will offer 56K wireless access through Nextel, Owens said. The service will also be extended to South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska.

Owens, also CEO of Teledesic -- a company that aims to offer worldwide Internet access -- said Extend America is dedicated to providing rural areas with the high-speed voice and data lines needed in a fast-changing world.

"You are going to see wireless networks that are going to change the way we think of doing wireless networks," Owens said.

Technology is getting more portable, cheaper and faster.

"This stuff is moving very fast," Owens said. "All of us have to be aware, and all of us in rural America have to be ready" to take advantage of it.

Until recently, Qwest was hampered by federal rules designed to help cable companies grow. The rules made it a money-losing proposition for Qwest to offer high-speed access, Notebaert said.

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Politics also hurt Qwest's ability to invest in more rural areas.

"North Dakota is on the short end of the stick" in getting funds from the $234 million Universal Service Fund, Notebaert said.

Not a penny goes to North or South Dakota or Nebraska, he said.

Only eight states share the money, he said. Three states get 85 percent of the cash, with Mississippi getting half of the funds.

The "$234 million can make a huge impact when it comes to less-populated areas," he said. "This $234 million got hijacked."

Bills have been introduced to redistribute the money among 46 states.

"We need to make sure the government doesn't pick winners and losers," Notebaert said. "The ability to supply DSL (high-speed digital subscriber lines), the ability to supply high-speed Interent access, is critical to all of us."

Owens spent most of his speech making a case that America's security, military might and economic power is tied to leading in information technology.

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"Technology: It's the core of a new way of working, it's the core of a new way of living, it's the core of a new way of doing things," Owens said.

Qwest is on the mend under Notebaert.

Last June, some analysts considered it a prime candidate for bankruptcy. The company had $26 billion in debt, its bonds were nearing junk status, it was being investigated for improper bookkeeping and making secret deals, and investors were fleeing as its stock price tumbled into the single digits.

The situation led to Joseph Nacchio being forced out and Notebaert being hired.

Since then, Quest sold off its QwestDex directory subsidiary, fixed its books, settled several lawsuits, pared its debt to $20 million and has $6 billion cash in hand, Notebaert said.

"This has been a very disciplined approach -- very focused," he said after talking to Fargo office Qwest employees. "We had taken a pause."

The 2004 tech conference will be Oct. 11 and 12 at the Fargodome, officials said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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