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Tina Smith: High-speed Internet isn't nice, it's necessary

Tina Smith

ST. PAUL -- In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act, which provided assistance to rural communities that lacked access to electrical lighting. The act replaced kerosene and wood stoves with alternating currents and wires.

The Rural Utilities Administration later would broaden its mission to expand telephone service access and modern plumbing to small towns across the country.

Thanks to this collaboration between private companies and the public sector, rural America was connected to the world. Like their city counterparts, these Americans were able to enjoy the same basic services needed for quality of life and economic competitiveness.

Today, we stand at a similar junction when it comes to broadband access. Just like electricity or telephone connections, access to high-speed, affordable broadband Internet is not just nice; it is necessary if we want economic prosperity to be broadly shared in every corner of our state.

Over the past few weeks, I've had the chance to talk to Minnesota businesses, educators and doctors about how necessary high-speed Internet access is to our rural economy.

In the Brainerd area, a cancer doctor told about how he drives from his home to a McDonald's parking lot in town, just so he can download patient x-rays.

In Fergus Falls, I met a commodities trader. His young family wanted to move back to the community where his wife grew up, and because we have broadband access to the farmhouse that once belonged to their great grandparents, he can now run his trading business from home.

In Luverne, a radio station manager told us how his station relies on broadband Internet to keep up with industry standards and deliver the best content to listeners in southwestern Minnesota.

Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature recognized this need and took an important step toward ensuring border-to-border broadband access by investing $20 million in a new Minnesota Broadband Infrastructure Grant Fund.

In this public-private partnership, the state invests with private providers and local government partners to expand broadband in rural parts of the state where there is little or no broadband access.

Every dollar of state investment is leveraging an additional $1.32 in private and local match to build out rural broadband access. And thanks to our 17 grants, local providers will be able to expand broadband access to 6,095 households, 150 businesses and 83 libraries, town halls, schools and other community institutions in greater Minnesota.

Regardless of where I went -- from Roseau to Chisholm and Worthington, to name a few -- I met community leaders who understand the need for broadband expansion in order to attract and retain the next generation of business, entrepreneurs and creative people.

The Greater Minnesota Partnership estimates that 95 percent broadband coverage across the state would create significant benefits for Minnesota, including $440 million in household income, 15,000 jobs created or sustained and more than $1 billion in state GDP growth.

This can be our future, if we take action now.

This legislative session, Dayton and I have proposed additional funding to keep this grant program operating. Just as electrification and telephone access transformed rural America almost 80 years ago, broadband access will create opportunity for this generation of Minnesota entrepreneurs and inventors, and the communities where they live.

This session, let's work together to keep on making progress.