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Broadband debate centers on cost, students, businesses

Litchfield school Superintendent Daniel Frazier says on Wednesday, April 27, 2016, that rural Minnesota students need broadband high-speed Internet service. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL -- Ten percent of Litchfield School District students are so far away from high-speed Internet connections that they cannot to do all of their homework.

Superintendent Daniel Frazier on Wednesday said students in his area are luckier than many in rural Minnesota.

Students who live in areas with mobile telephone signals so weak that wireless hotspots would be ineffective are out of luck. Other students live out of range of wired high-speed service, too, but may be able to connect to cell towers.

"They are at a handicap in that regard," Frazier said as Democratic senators and rural broadband supporters gathered to push a plan spending $85 million to bring high-speed Internet to more Minnesotans.

A House plan, spending $47 million over two years, includes funds allowing students without a connection to take home hotspot devices so they can connect to cell towers and work on the Internet.

Joe Gould of the Minnesota Rural Education Association said that the hotspot idea would be a step forward for his members, but "we want them to have wired connection at home."

Republicans who control the House say that their level of investment in broadband would bring with it more than $200 million in federal and private funds.

Wednesday's comments came as the House passed an overall bill containing $40 million in funds to help extend broadband.

Broadband backers say more than $3 billion is needed to bring the service to all Minnesotans, coming from state, federal, cooperative and private sources. Much of the state money can be matched with federal aid, but Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said the federal funds are not available to all communities.

Frazier's district is one of many that provide students with devices such as tablets or computers so they can work at home. But some students can do little at home, putting them at a disadvantage to other students.

Bill sponsor Sen. Matt Schmit, D-Red Wing, said rural students would benefit big time from high-speed Internet service, giving them what he called "anywhere, anytime learning." Virtual field trips also would be available, as would classes not otherwise available.

Schmit said 20 percent of Minnesotans lack broadband service, mostly in rural areas.

"The problem we have in greater Minnesota is lack of funding," he said.

Previous years' grants have worked well, he added, providing at least 10,000 homes with broadband.

"There is a sense of urgency in getting it done," he said.

Schmit said that although his bill and the House plan are different, he can see common ground. He said he has traded text messages with House broadband leaders and has talked to them as a start to eventual negotiations to resolve differences.

Former Rep. Doug Peterson, now Minnesota Farmers' Union president, said rural residents have "a right to access."

When he lived on his western Minnesota farm, he long used a dial-up Internet connection. "You could do a lot of clothes, do some farming and come in and you finally would get on."

Frazier said schools sometimes are thought to be slow to change, but it is important now to move forward with technology. He said that many jobs are open, and "most of those jobs have to do with high tech skills."

As rural Minnesota loses population, the superintendent added, people left will be poorer. If broadband extends through the state, it could help the economy, he said. "This is important as an equity issue."

Rep. Eric Simonson, D-Duluth, failed in his bid to raise House broadband spending to $85 million.

"People are migrating to the metro," he said.