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Neela Mollgaard

RED WING — Getting called to testify in front of a Congressional subcommittee can be fun. Or so says Neela Mollgaard.

Mollgaard, executive director of Red Wing Ignite, testified before a House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing titled "Building Opportunity in Rural America through Affordable, Reliable and High-Speed Broadband."

"It was an incredible learning experience," said Mollgaard, who added seeing democracy in action was an exciting part of her trip to Washington, D.C. "It was interesting to meet the fellow panelists, see the different levels of expertise and different locations from around the county."

Mollgaard is an advocate for expanding access to broadband internet service in rural America. At Red Wing Ignite, she said, the organization has helped facilitate partnerships between businesses, schools, farmers, organizations and mentors to help bring to rural Goodhue County and Minnesota the advantages of broadband usually seen only in urban areas. 

One thing she hopes the subcommittee members learned from her testimony, as well as the answers she provided to questioning by the legislators, is that access to broadband is not the end goal, but merely a first step for a community.

"It takes a long time to build that innovative ecosystem that’s needed," she said. 

For example, Mollgaard said the organization has helped set up learning opportunities for students in area schools so they can utilize the broadband and obtain the skills necessary for tech jobs in the future. 

Another need for rural broadband is a device called the Poultry Patrol, which can help monitor turkeys or other birds in a farm environment. But using the device requires robust internet service, Mollgaard said. 

"It is important to highlight the need for rural communities to stay competitive," she said. "Together, with our local, state and national partners, we’re creating an innovative ecosystem for our students, entrepreneurs and business community."

Rep. Angie Craig, MN-2, who invited Mollgaard to speak during the hearing, said Minnesota is ahead of other states when it comes to access to broadband internet in rural areas. 

"However, from recent investments in the Farm Bill, I’m hopeful that we can bring additional funds home to Minnesota to further connectivity for rural communities," Craig said. "I’m also optimistic through my role on (Rep. Jim) Clyburn’s Rural Broadband Task Force that Congress will develop good public policy that fosters more deployment nationwide."

Mollgaard said one of the barriers to implementation of broadband throughout rural areas is the cost. She cited a farm that was part of a program that needed broadband connectivity.

"It’s easier to get fiber (optic cable) to bigger hubs, but harder to get them to that farm," she said. "It would cost $40,000 to implement fiber to the farm and $300 a month for that connectivity."

Saying that high-speed internet is "not a luxury," Craig added that rural broadband access is essential for success in a 21st century economy.

"Broadband access helps students complete their homework, farmers access markets, and business owners serve customers," Craig said. "Decades ago, our country recognized that rural electrification would be the great equalizer between rural and urban communities, and we must do the same with broadband."

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Regional Reporter

Brian Todd is a 1997 graduate of Nebraska-Omaha. He covers Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona and Houston counties and writes a weekly column about the life of a reporter.