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Getting connected, staying connected vital to state’s future, say lawmakers

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By Sonja Hegman MN House Public Information Office

ST. PAUL — Americans used to think of the future in terms of flying cars and hover boards thanks to The Jetsons television show and the Back to the Future film trilogy.

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Now that we’re just one year away from the Back to the Future future of 2015, it’s time to get real. And the best way to do that is to make sure every citizen in the state is “connected,” many Minnesota legislators say.

This session, lawmakers have considered several bills on broadband Internet and telecommunications. After a meeting in the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee this week, it appears broadband could get an expansion.

“Broadband is the future of Minnesota,” said Representative Erik Simonson, D-Duluth, in one of several hearings on broadband and telecommunications. “Minnesota lags behind in technology. Good broadband is a need and it’s frustrating to people when they don’t have the tools that they need.”

The supplemental omnibus jobs and economic development finance bill sponsored by Representative Tim Mahoney, D-St. Paul, which totals $38.6 million in general fund spending for fiscal year 2015, contains a one-time appropriation of $25 million for a broadband development grant program and an additional $450,000 for broadband mapping across the state.

The grant funds would be available to areas of the state that are unserved, those who don’t have access to the federally provider-required download speed of four megabits per second; or underserved, those who don’t have access to the state’s provider-required download speed of 10 to 20 megabits per second.

Annandale is one community that residents say could benefit from a broadband expansion. For them, slow speeds and frequent outages prove difficult for businesses that can’t process credit card transactions, and for medical facilities that can’t access patient records or fill prescriptions when the system goes down.

Annandale City Councilwoman Shelly Jonas said an 80-year-old nun approached her to ask what the city was doing about the broadband issues.

“This is a very pervasive issue in our community,” Jonas said. “During an outage, businesses can’t use web-based technology. It affects the quality of life overall.”

With 34 percent of the city’s workforce telecommuting or working virtually, Jonas said, there is a strong argument for better broadband access.

“We have a shot at this,” she said. “We could be sitting in this exact situation in five years without a future-thinking provider.”

Deb Reitmeier, Annandale health and community services administrator, said that as of January 1, 2015, health care providers will be mandated to have fully electronic health records in place.

“We don’t have the speeds to achieve that,” she said. “These laws have been made and we don’t have the tools to comply with the laws. It’s unacceptable to our residents and to Minnesota. Our residents shouldn’t have to wait for their medications.”

Provisions in the bill include:

• $7 million for grants to several areas of Greater Minnesota.

• $1.6 million for workforce development that would include a women and nontraditional jobs grant program, technology apprenticeship pilot program, precision manufacturing and apprenticeship pilot program, Department of Employment and Economic Development accountability requirements, and a new employee training partnership;

• $1.6 million for the Minnesota Jobs Skills Partnership program;

• $500,000 for Women Entrepreneurs Business Development grants, which is a part of the Women’s Economic Security Act;

• $450,000 to establish the Regenerative Medicine Research Institute, which would be used for further investment in regenerative medicine that would look further into diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

• $250,000 for the Department of Labor and Industry for women and nontraditional jobs apprenticeships.

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The author writes for the nonpartisan Session Daily (http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/sessiondaily) in the Minnesota House Public Information Office.

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