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Speedy Internet could boost rural Minnesota

ST.

Faster Internet speeds

ST. PAUL - State leaders often talk about two Minnesotas, a well-connected Minnesota around the Twin Cities and a less advanced Minnesota elsewhere.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Internet service, something more and more Minnesotans see as essential as electricity and telephones.

"It is one of those clear-cut issues that really separates regions and really makes 'haves' and 'have nots,' " said Brad Finstad, Minnesota's Center for Rural Policy and Development executive director.

There is a movement to correct that disparity, or at least to speed connections outside the Twin Cities up to levels that allow all Minnesotans to use online health, government and business services.

Some say every Minnesota home and business should have a high-speed Internet connection.

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Jack Geller, Finstad's predecessor and now at the University of Minnesota Crookston, said the questions are: "Is it fair to say that those people who live ... at the end of a gravel road have the same right to technology as those living in downtown Minneapolis? And do poor people have the same right to it as people of means?"

To the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Task Force that recently produced a list of recommendations, the answer was simple: Internet service via a fast broadband is necessary for everyone.

However, it was not just rural Minnesotans that the task force said needed better service. Members decided that even the fastest service in Minnesota, in the eastern Twin Cities' Washington County, is not fast enough, and everyone should have access to ultra-high-speed broadband by 2015.

Just how to achieve the high-speed goal is not clear, especially given the state's budget problems. Task force members skirted the question about how to fund expanded high-speed connections, other than to encourage governments and private businesses to work together.

A northeastern Minnesota county is doing just that and may have the answer, at least for those in the "second Minnesota."

Lake County hopes to blaze a trail to a faster Internet with private businesses paying most of the cost.

County officials want to lay fiber optic cable, capable of carrying high-speed signals, to every home and business with electricity. If it happens, Lake County could become a model for Minnesota and the country by offering its rural citizens the same service as their big-city cousins receive.

"It is kind of like stepping off the side of the cliff," County Board Chairman Paul Bergman of the decision for the county to act as middleman between a federal government low-interest loan and private firms.

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About a year and a half ago, state economic development officials were helping a company look for up to 500 acres of land within 30 minutes of a major airport and close to a railroad. Lake County could provide both.

But Lake County lost out, Bergman said, because it did not have one other requirement: a high-speed Internet fiber connection.

Lake County officials do not know what company was looking, but they decided it was a data storage business and "they figured it was so much easier to cool it in northern Minnesota," the county board chairman said. "In the future, we would have a lot bigger opportunity to land something like that."

The lost opportunity meant 150 jobs were lost. But it is not just jobs at stake.

Clay County Administrator Vijay Sethi, like Geller a task force member, said the problem is going to get worse if something is not done soon.

In Moorhead, where Sethi lives, high-speed Internet is available, but at a fraction of the speed that is needed to run many applications.

In flood-prone areas of his county, people need to keep in touch with river levels, he said, something that is tough at slow connection speeds.

Internet providers need "enough horsepower to download a bunch of information" for tasks such as medical care, Sethi said.

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"Nobody should be left out having access to those services," Sethi said.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com

Related Topics: INTERNET
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