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Kevin Wald: In today's instant culture, businesses need reliable high-speed Internet

Kevin Wald

MONTEVIDEO, Minn.—The Internet has opened up a world of possibilities for business. Gone are the days of living out of suitcases and waiting weeks to receive documents in the mail. Today, blueprints and contracts can be sent anywhere with the press of a button, and we are able to conduct teleconferences between multiple time zones at once instead of flying halfway around the world for a meeting.

While the Internet certainly has made many aspects of conducting business easier and more efficient, it also has created a sense of urgency that did not exist 20 years ago. Clients do not want to wait 12 hours for a file, nor do they have the patience for a shoddy connection when participating in a video meeting.

If you have slow or unreliable Internet service, it is a major barrier to your ability to do business.

As a rural business owner, I know these struggles all too well. My nine companies have 235 employees and use seven rural locations, six of which are in Minnesota (the cities of Benson, Montevideo, Granite Falls, Redwood Falls, New Ulm and Cloquet). We provide engineering, manufacturing, electronic repair and logistic services to 12 industries. Often our clients have a sizeable United States footprint, but they are multicultural, and we deal with companies all across the globe.

In order to compete on the world markets, we need reliable high-speed Internet service.

In today's instant culture, my clients do not care if we are in New England, New Guinea, New York or New Ulm. They just want top-quality work, on time and on budget.

My clients do not want to hear of our rural Minnesota broadband woes, but I can attest that our frustrations are real. The data we deal with daily is huge in quantity and huge in importance (the electronic equipment we utilize uses words such as "terabytes"). The broadband networks in many of the communities I work in are unable to adequately support these files, which means it can take hours to send files that could be sent between two companies in Silicon Valley in minutes.

The networks become even more congested when the schoolchildren get home at 3:30 p.m. and log onto their computers. Try telling a client in Japan or the Netherlands that they won't be able to receive their file right away because it is 4 p.m. in rural Minnesota, and the Internet is running slow.

My companies are increasingly coming up against competition in places like Malaysia, Brazil and India. As Internet service improves elsewhere and continues to stagnate in rural Minnesota, we will lose business opportunities to places with better connections. In fact, Minnesota currently ranks behind Uruguay, Latvia and Qatar, and just ahead of Bulgaria, in terms of Internet connection speeds.

The lack of Internet service is also a challenge when it comes to recruiting new employees. There are expectations for basic services when a potential employee considers relocating for a job. In this day and age, Internet service is a must-have for many people and families.

I find many candidates who are excited to raise a family in a rural community, but they do not want to live in the digital equivalence of the 1980s.

Businesses in Greater Minnesota need the same world-class Internet service currently available in the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs. We enjoy the benefits smaller towns provide and like being able to contribute to our communities, but we cannot allow poor Internet service to hold us back.

I expect growth to drive my companies to 400 employees in the next few years, and I hope that we will have the Internet capabilities necessary to help facilitate that growth.

Years ago, our grandparents oversaw the state's initiative to bring electricity to rural communities. The state also helped connect rural water and sewer and upgraded phone service. Broadband has become a basic utility much like water and electricity—our businesses simply cannot function without it.

It's time for the state to step in and help bring broadband up to speed in all corners of Minnesota.