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There is demand for improved broadband Internet service in rural counties, including those with a high percentage of elderly residents, Pam Lehmann of Lac Qui Parle County Economic Development Authority said Monday. Lehmann took part in a discussion on broadband Internet service led by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, pictured at left. Photo by Scott Wente, St. Paul Capitol Bureau.

Internet upgrade vital for rural Minnesota, which lags behind

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By Scott Wente

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Some rural Minnesota school children cannot use certain learning tools, while their classmates can.

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Small businesses have difficulty competing because they cannot send files electronically.

Tourists take a pass on resorts that cannot offer a high-speed link to the working world.

Medical clinics see ways to improve care, but cannot provide the services to patients.

Those are among problems in areas of Minnesota that either lack high-speed Internet or do not have fast and reliable services, rural officials told U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

The Minnesota Democrat said she has heard similar stories while traveling the state. After hearing more such tales during a Monday roundtable discussion on broadband Internet service, Klobuchar said there is a strong argument for including money for Internet service improvements in a federal economic stimulus package.

Doing so could put people to work in the short term, she said, and put Minnesota and the rest of the country in a better position to compete globally for years to come.

"The bottom line is that broadband will be a significant part of the economic recovery plan and we need in Minnesota to be prepared to make the most of it," she said.

Broadband service is important even to small rural communities with a high percentage of elderly residents, said Pam Lehman of the Lac Qui Parle County Economic Development Authority. Lehmann said when that agency started, broadband Internet service became an issue right away.

"The demand is there," she said of the western Minnesota county.

Rural communities need high-speed Internet, Lehmann said, and broadband services should be viewed as infrastructure, just like roads and bridges.

"We can't count it a luxury anymore if we want our communities to survive," she said.

President-elect Barack Obama has signaled an early priority of his incoming administration will be to pass an economic stimulus package. When the new Congress convenes next week, it will begin to draft the first phase of that package, Klobuchar said. That will focus on public infrastructure projects, such as roads and bridges.

Expansion of broadband Internet infrastructure should be included in the second phase, perhaps to be completed within a year, Klobuchar said. It is important because the country is falling behind other industrialized nations in high-speed Internet service, and rural areas trail behind urban centers in broadband infrastructure.

Funding for broadband improvements could come in the form of matching grants for communities and businesses that want to upgrade existing high-speed Internet service. It also could result in direct grants to communities where there is no high-speed Internet service.

"You can't do one without the other," Klobuchar said, but it is not clear how much funding could be available. "I just want to make sure that broadband is at the table."

Tim Rice of Staples-based Lakewood Health System said the clinic is working with local governments and a community college to bring broadband Internet service to their area. Federal aid could help.

Lakewood employs 750 people but has trouble with its Internet access, he said. That makes it difficult to provide new Internet-based health services and to attract physicians and other health professionals.

Some view high-speed Internet service as critical for a community's vitality.

State Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, said broadband Internet service is "spotty" in her northern Minnesota legislative district. It is available in certain areas, though a high-speed connection is not guaranteed, but still is not an option in other areas.

Sailer, who participated in the roundtable discussion with Klobuchar, said that has posed problems for libraries, which have seen an increase in unemployed people using library computers to apply for jobs because they don't have Internet service at home. It also is a challenge for small firms that need high-speed Internet to conduct business and for resorts in remote areas that need broadband capability to attract tourists who expect to do some Internet-related work while vacationing.

"It's making a difference at many, many levels in rural Minnesota," Sailer said.

That also includes schools, said Jeff Hunt. Technology director for Park Rapids Area School District, Hunt said that while Internet service has improved, some students who live outside of town cannot take advantage of new educational tools while their classmates who live in town can.

"It's not available if you don't have high-speed Internet," he said.

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