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Speedy Internet could boost rural Minnesota

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.

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 not only for Minnesota but 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.

But the cliff, like some of those near Lake Superior, could turn into a destination.

"The studies that have shown ... with the fiber (optic cable), property values increase, the population increases and there is more economic growth," Bergman said. "It also helps with economic retention."

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.

As the recession and other economic woes force governments to cut back, more and more services will be available only on line. Better and cheaper health care also is going to be available on line, when doctors in far-away cities meet with patients via video. And businesses do more business on line every day, leaving some people out if they have no Internet service or only turtle-slow dial-up connections.

Finstad said that Minnesotans should think about farmers, who when his father started dealt with the price of corn going up or down 5 cents or 6 cents a bushel in a day. That was no problem.

However, today, prices may swing 60 cents an hour, requiring farmers to constantly be in touch with the markets.

Or, Finstad said, consider a small-town printing plant that expanded when it got high-speed Internet service, adding $3 million a year to its revenues.

Then there is the woman who lives between Sleepy Eye and St. James in southwestern Minnesota. She can work for a Twin Cities insurance company from her home only because she has high-speed Internet available, allowing her to only drive to the cities once a week.

More and faster connections are vital for rural Minnesota, Finstad said.

"It is one of the top questions businesses ask when they are looking at communities." Finstad said. "From a quality of life standpoint, it is no secret we are losing our young people to urban areas."

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.

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

Geller said the actual broadband connection may end up being not as big a problem in rural areas as other factors, such as the high number of elderly and poor.

"Some of those demographic barriers and socioeconomic barriers are very real and will prove to be larger barriers," Geller said, indicating some will not want or be able to afford computer equipment to be connected. "I would have a hard time figuring out the right argument to convince somebody that they need to spend anywhere between $25 and $50 a month, plus the cost of a computer ... for an elderly person on a fixed income who is of modest means."

But if a person wants a high-speed connection, he added, they should be allowed to have one. It is much the same as when telephones and electricity spread across rural areas, he added.

Chris Swanson of Two Harbors, another task force member, said that to him the key issue is to make the most important service available to everyone. He considers that to be health care for the elderly. If such a service that needs fast broadband is available, service to everyone would improve.

The task force avoided saying how the state should pay for the improved service, but Swanson, who runs a high-technology business in Lake County, said government needs to consider providing infrastructure like it provides roads for package-delivery companies.

How the Internet is delivered matters less than making sure it happens, said Swanson, a Two Harbors City Council member.

In Lake County, fiber optic cable is logical because forested areas make wireless less reliable. But in southern Minnesota's farm country, wireless connections may make more economic sense.

Fiber is "like having a four-lane highway," Swanson said, while wireless "is a real nice two-lane road with shoulders. It still delivers what they need."

It is not financially feasible to build four-lane Internet highways to every home, Swanson said, although that is what Lake County plans.

Lake County hopes to get a low-interest federal economic stimulus loan for a private company to lay fiber cable. Then private firms will be allowed to provide service over those lines. The county does not plan to be an Internet service provider itself.

Swanson said Lake County could be a model, "especially for rural areas. I think our model is one that is very sustainable. It is very healthy. It allows for business growth, at the same time puts the critical infrastructure needs in place."