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Lac qui Parle County takes to the open road to put the digital divide in the past

Lac qui Parle County wants to provide broadband service to educate and encourage residents to adopt computer technology into their lives. "We can't be good enough. We have to be striving to be the cutting edge,'' said Pam Lehmann, the county's EDA director. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Lac qui Parle County is taking to the road to put the digital divide behind it.

The county on Wednesday plans to unveil its "computer commuter,'' a mobile comp-uter laboratory that will off-er free Internet access and computer training to residents.

The modified, transit-style bus will be making regular visits to six different communities in the county. It holds seven different computer st-ations, one of which is handicapped-accessible.

Also on board will be Mary Quick, its coordinator. She will offer help with the basics and provide free training tailored to the needs of individual users.

The computer commuter is only part of an ambitious effort to remove the county from the list of "underserved'' counties in the state in terms of broadband access and usage, according to Pamela Lehmann, director of the county's Economic Development Authority.

Lehmann said the county is working to address both its physical infrastructure needs as well as what might be called its human or social infrastructure needs.

More than 38 percent of the residents in the five counties in the Upper Minnesota River basin, Lac qui Parle included, reported they do not own a home computer, according to information collected by the Blandin Foundation's Intelligent Rural Communities project.

A survey of the five counties also showed that among those who owned a home computer, only 89.2 percent had the computers connected to the Internet. That is lower than the 92 to 97 percent access rate found in better-served areas of the state.

To learn more about the needs in the county, Lehmann and members of the EDA's broadband committee offered free popcorn at the county fair last year to anyone who would answer a survey.

Their informal survey of nearly 500 fair-goers revealed that there were lots of people who owned home computers, but did not use them. They have been afraid to turn them on, and believe there is no place to get the very basic type of instruction they need to start, Lehmann said.

The survey at the fair -- and Lehmann's own contacts with businesses in the county -- also made it clear to her that many businesses in the county have not integrated computers into their operations as they could. In some cases it's due to the lack of broadband access at their locations.

Yet in many cases, it's simply because the business owners never had computer training. They either had shunned computers altogether or, lacking an understanding of them, never took the steps to adopt them in their businesses, she said.

Lehmann said the EDA also learned from the school districts in the county that there are many low-income families who do not have computers at home. Even when they do, many cannot afford to hook up to Internet service.

Lehman said the mobile laboratory will allow these families and their school-age children to catch up with their economically advantaged peers.

She sees the computer commuter as the means to introduce computers and what the Internet can offer to everyone from senior citizens to business owners.

It's all about economic development, no different than when electricity first reached the rural areas of the county seven decades ago, said Lehmann.

And just like when electricity first arrived, it took time for people to make the step from having light bulbs in their homes to harnessing the power for greater efficiencies in how they operated the farm or did business.

"We want to be competitive,'' said Lehmann. "We can't be good enough. We have to be striving to be the cutting edge.''

A grant from a Washington, D.C.-based organization known as the TFD Foundation is making the computer commuter possible in the county. Lehmann said she does not know if the computer commuter is the first of its kind, but it is certainly one of a few. TFD Foundation focuses on bringing broadband access and education to rural areas, and told Lehmann this was its first ever request for a mobile laboratory.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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