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Official: Rural broadband 'just like electricity' - You have to have it

Broadband availability in Minnesota
Broadband availability in Minnesota
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The federal agency created in 1935 to bring electricity to farmers and small towns is now part of a major push to bring broadband Internet connections to rural America.

In Minnesota, the Rural Development Administration , formerly the Rural Electrification Administration, has invested about $317 million in broadband and telecommunications projects since 2009, said Adam Czech, public affairs specialist. That is part of the $3.5 billion it has invested in housing, infrastructure, community facilities, businesses, renewable energy and high-speed Internet, he said.

About 95 percent of the money is in the form of loans or loan guarantees, said State Director Colleen Landkamer, who toured southeastern Minnesota this week with Czech to see some of the projects the agency has helped and to talk about what the administration does.

One of the big initiatives now is broadband. High-speed Internet is becoming what electricity was 80 years ago — a critical component of business, Landkamer said.

According to Connect Minnesota , the Legislature set its basic broadband level at 10 megabits per second download and 6 megabits per second upload. Many of the areas with the best broadband coverage are in the metro area, where more than 75 percent of people have access to high-speed internet.

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In southeastern Minnesota, Goodhue and Wabasha counties have the best coverage at 40-50 percent; Olmsted and Winona counties have the worst at less than 20 percent.

Farmers rely on the Internet to check markets, sell or buy grain, Landkamer said. Small-town businesses need it to sell, buy and advertise. Small schools can offer more classes via the Internet. Rural hospitals and medical clinics can tie into major hospitals for information, And communities need it so they can attract people who want to telecommute, enjoying small-town living with jobs usually done only in big cities.

"Broadband really does level the playing field," Landkamer said. "It's just like electricity, you have to have it. … I think there are very, very, very few companies or businesses that can function without it."

When she was a Blue Earth County commissioner several years ago, for example, she learned of a business that was about to leave because it couldn't get connected. When an antenna was added to connect them to the Internet, the business stayed.

The Rural Development Administration is working with many other groups in the project, she said. The Blandin Foundation , of Grand Rapids, has a Broadband Initiative that has many of the same aims.

"Abundant and robust access to the Internet (broadband), and the digital literacy skills necessary to take full advantage of this access are essential as communities seek to compete and thrive in a digitally connected world," the Blandin Foundation states.

The work is not without its problems, Czech said.

Some places have doughnut holes, with broadband all around, but nothing in the middle. In the blufflands, the hills are an obstacle to getting everyone connected, he said.

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But Landkamer said the work has to continue "to make a rural community vibrant, sustainable."

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