Lawmakers, consumers seek rural broadband expansion

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Internet connectivity is something a lot of people in cities take for granted. But outside the metro areas in Minnesota, there are huge swaths of territory where the Internet Connection isn't strong enough to be considered broadband.

"On any given day we don't know if the Internet is going to work, how long it's gonna be up," Jody Reisch, who lives in rural Rock County in southwestern Minnesota, told reporters at the Capitol Thursday.

He said when he lived inside the city of Luverne he had decent Internet service and took it for granted until he moved with his family out into the country. Now he finds conducting basic business extremely hampered by unreliable Internet service.

Reisch is among those supporting a bill that would set up a $100 million grant program to help providers, rural coops or smaller communities install more fiber optic cable to extend high speed Internet connections into greater Minnesota.

The bill, authored by Rep. Erik Simonson of Duluth and Sen. Matt Schmit or Red Wing, is part of an effort labeled "Broadband border-to-border" by the Greater Minnesota Partnership coalition.

According to the partnership, only 32 percent of households in Greater Minnesota have access to good quality broadband, as compared to 92 percent of the households in the Twin Cities metro area.

"Fiber optic infrastructure today is just as important to Minnesota's farmers as seed that they plant, it's just as important to small businesses as electricity," Gary Evans, a member of Governor Dayton's broadband task force, remarked.

Evan said that efforts by communities to upgrade rural service has been thwarted in some case by legal action by existing Internet service providers who enjoy monopolies in some areas.

Steve Niklaus, the superintendent of the Annandale School District, says instruction and other school functions are hampered by the lack of reliable service.

"Our community, our school district, is served by a single provider that operates on a decaying system that provides slow speeds, frequent outages and for a high cost," Niklaus said.

He noted that in an era of "flipped classrooms" when students are asked to learn online away from the classroom it's especially frustrating, and putting children in less populated areas at a disadvantage.

The rural broad band gap can also put the squeeze on small businesses. Dave Horning, who owns a small tire store in the west central Minnesota town of Herman, said he has lost sales because he couldn't generate a quote quickly enough online.

"I have explored having quality fiber optic service installed to my business. The quote that installation would be over $17,000, which a company like mine is too small to absorb."

Sen. Schmidt said lawmakers and leaders of all stripes have endorsed broadband expansion for many years, but the grant program would give them an opportunity to create some tangible results.

"I'd be remiss not to remind you we have more references to the telegraph in our state laws than we have to the Internet. That is not adequate for 2014, and we can do something about that."


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