Speedy Internet could help provide a boost for areas of rural Minnesota, officials say
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 said 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.
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.
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 online. Better and cheaper health care also is going to be available online, when doctors in far-away cities meet with patients via video. And businesses do more business online 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 drive to the cities only 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." he added.