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Our View: Maintain momentum for rural broadband

Like the running of electricity and phone lines to farms a century or more ago, connecting rural America to broadband and to reliable high-speed internet has become as basic and as necessary an undertaking as building passable highways and continuing to find clean water sources.

Encouragingly in Minnesota, the push continues to push broadband deeper into our forests and farms. And even if slowly, we're getting there. We're closer to the $900 million investment a governor's task force of experts determined, after exhaustive study, was needed to achieve border-to-border connection speeds fast enough for video chatting.

This legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers can get us even closer.

Northland lawmakers last week announced a bill calling for another $100 million in spending for rural broadband projects statewide. Gov. Mark Dayton, in his state budget, released last week, proposed $60 million over two years for rural broadband.

While both proposals may prove a bit ambitious, the Legislature can continue to chip away this session at the worthwhile funding goal, following $20 million approved in 2014, $10 million in 2015, and $35 million allocated last year

Lawmakers can maintain the momentum because, "This technology is the present and the future, and Minnesota cannot fall further behind in critical infrastructure provisions," as Sen. Erik Simonson of Duluth said in a commentary in the News Tribune in 2015.

In a statement last week, Simonson, the chief author of the Senate broadband bill this session, said, "For every dollar invested in broadband in the state, $10 is generated in economic activity. That kind of return on investment just makes sense."

The chief author of the companion bill in the House is freshman Rep. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing: "I've promised to work toward diversifying the economy on the Range, and broadband is the infrastructure needed to provide alternate pathways to economic development," she said in a News Tribune story.

Farmers, rural business owners and others need to remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace. Rural broadband is a necessity for them.

For health care, too. More and more, health care is going high-tech, and broadband can deliver quality care to areas outside of large cities.

It's a disgrace that kids from Northeastern Minnesota have to drive to a McDonald's in town so they can sit in the parking lot to tap into the Wi-Fi to finish their homework.

Despite the chipping away already at the $900 million total funding goal, about 22 percent of homes in rural Minnesota still lack internet connections at basic speeds, Simonson and Sandstede reported last week.

Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm knows all about it: "My district is largely unserved by high-speed broadband," Tomassoni said, according to KDAL-AM. "Broadband is a necessary tool for residents in our region. I am always supportive of programs that foster economic development in greater Minnesota. And investment in broadband is one of the best tools."

Minnesotans deserve online access whether they live in urban or rural areas. However, while 97 percent of Twin Cities-urban Anoka County has high-speed internet access, only 44 percent of northern-rural Cook County does, as U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar pointed out in a commentary in the News Tribune last January.

It's a disparity Minnesota lawmakers are chipping away at — and can continue to this session.