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OUR OPINION: Spread broadband's benefits across Minnesota

Once you have broadband, once your workplace has broadband and once your community has broadband, it's easy to think that everybody has broadband.

But everybody doesn't. In fact, across rural Minnesota, nearly 40 percent of households lack access to broadband service that meets even the low end of Minnesota's speed goals.

That's unacceptable—and in those communities, nothing would goose the economy more strongly than getting fast and reliable broadband service. Rural Minnesotans gave House Republicans the majority on the promise that the GOP would tackle exactly those kinds of issues. But last week, the Republicans fell down on the job, budgeting not $200 million nor $100 million nor even $1 million for broadband infrastructure improvements, but $0.

"House Republicans aim to slash broadband Internet grants," CBS Minnesota headlined its report.

That's despite the recommendation of a governor's task force, which in 2013 called for $200 million in spending to "wire" rural Minnesota for broadband service.

Other states are doing all that and more; here, for example, is a January headline about Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plans in the state of New York:

"Cuomo administration promises $1 billion for rural broadband expansion across upstate New York."

Cuomo's goal: High-speed Internet access in every New York home within five years.

"Access to high-speed internet is critical to ensuring that all New Yorkers can reach their full potential in today's technology-driven world," Cuomo said at the time.

"We're launching the largest state broadband investment in the nation in order to make that goal a reality."

That's the kind of talk rural Minnesotans want to hear, because the fact is that broadband expansion won't happen without government help.

Why?

For the same reason that rural electrification didn't happen without government help, and that rural telephone service wasn't extended without government help: The build-out isn't profitable. The markets served are too small and the infrastructure costs are too high for the private sector to be interested.

That leaves government, unless Minnesotans want to consign the state's small towns to permanent second-class status. And make no mistake, many Minnesota communities are wrestling with exactly that status today.

Can you imagine trying to run a business—any business—in 2015 without high-speed, reliable Internet service? Add health care, farming, education and personal computer needs to the mix, and the truth of Greater Minnesota Partnership executive director Dan Dorman's statement rings true:

"High-speed Internet service is not a luxury. It is an absolute necessity for job and business growth."

House Republicans should recognize that "absolute necessity," then help communities fulfill it across all of Minnesota.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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