Rural Minn. waiting for high-speed Web access
MINNEAPOLIS -- Gunflint Lodge is a place Minnesotans go to get away from the modern world, but owner Bruce Kerfoot says there is one modern amenity that he absolutely needs to maintain a strong business: high-speed Internet.
Kerfoot told a high-speed Internet summit Tuesday that needed just two minutes to book a room on line at a remote Swiss resort. But no one from Switzerland, or anywhere else, can book a room on line at his northeastern Minnesota resort because the area does not have high-speed Internet, also known as broadband.
Kerfoot said he needs what a west-central Minnesota county is launching: high-speed Internet service for every resident who wants it. Lac qui Parle County just received a federal loan and grant to run cable throughout the county, which within three years will give high-speed access to all.
Pam Lehmann, Lac qui Parle County Economic Development Authority executive director, said the 8,000-population county will end a long trend of losing population once the broadband is in place.
The two stories at a U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar-hosted Tuesday meeting told of not just an urban-rural technological split, but also different Internet development rates within rural Minnesota.
Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Chairman Julius Genachowski of the Federal Communications Commission told of federal plans to extend high-speed Internet to nearly everyone. However, even though money already is being spent, such as in Lac qui Parle County, the federal officials could give no goal for completing the work. In fact, Genachowski said not everyone in Washington and state governments think it is important to provide broadband everywhere.
Don't tell that to Kerfoot. He likened broadband to building the interstate highway network and electrifying the country, both government-funded operations.
Current dial-up Internet service to the Gunflint Lodge area "on the outskirts of Minnesota" is "half baked," Kerfoot said.
Looking north to Banff, Canada, Kerfoot said he sees a similar resort packed with Japanese tourists who can book rooms on line.
"I haven't had a foreign visitor this year," he said.
A consortium of organizations is working to improve northeast Minnesota's connectivity, but it cannot come too soon for Kerfoot.
"We have come close to being second-class citizens," Kerfoot said.
Lehmann said that is what her county is working to avoid.
Federal officials awarded Lac qui Parle a $9.6 million loan and grant Aug. 4 and once the first funds arrive, the county has three years to make sure even the farmer at the end of the road can hook up to broadband.
High-speed Internet will mean the county will begin to grow after years of decline, she promised, with people in their 30s and 40s who seek the rural life able to move to the county on the South Dakota boarder because they will be able to work via high-speed Internet.
Farmers Mutual Telephone cooperative already has a quarter of the county's homes on broadband and will connect the rest with the new funds.
"We are very confident that we will see an influx of new businesses," Lehmann said.
Bernadine Joselyn of the Blandin Foundation, which is working with 80 rural communities to improve Internet connections, told Klobuchar's meeting that new information shows 64 percent of greater Minnesotans have high-speed Internet connections. While said that that is up from 6 percent in 2001,"this new essential utility" is needed in more places, she said.
Genachowski said that the United States was last among 40 countries surveyed about how rapidly they were developing broadband.
"Standing still on broadband is falling behind," he said.
Genachowski said broadband will become a necessity when rural Americans, in particular, learn that they can be treated by doctors in big cities without driving to the cities.
"This is what's going to wake people up," added Rick King of Tomson Reuters, who headed a state broadband task force.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.