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High speed Internet extending its reach in rural Minnesota
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Hilton Bakker lives on a picturesque hobby farm in northern Minnesota. But his house is likely one of the most technologically wired homes in the state. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
During President Bush's recent visit to Minnesota, he touted high speed Internet service as one of the keys to a healthy economy. The President wants high speed Internet available to every home in the country by 2007. Minnesota may be on the fast track to reaching that goal. Just a few years ago, rural Minnesota communities were clamoring for access to high-speed Internet, also known as broadband. A new study now shows most rural communities have broadband. Industry observers say concern over broadband access is being replaced by a new issue -- whether rural Minnesotans are subscribing to broadband technology and using it to its full potential.

Bemidji, Minn. — Hilton Bakker enjoys feeding his animals. He isn't a farmer, though -- he's a radiologist. Bakker lives on a picturesque hobby farm with a red barn situated on rolling meadows. It's just a stone's throw from a sparkling lake. His home is quite rural -- it's 15 miles from Bemidji, at the end of a long dirt road. Despite the location, Hilton Bakker's home is likely one of the most technologically wired homes in the state.

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Image Bakker at work

"Here's my office," Bakker says, as he pushes open the door. "This is pretty much where I'm based out of now."

A bank of high-resolution computer monitors line Bakker's work station. He's a radiologist for hospitals in Crookston, Fosston, Bagley and Red Lake. Bakker used to spend five or six days a week on the road. But now, he can read x-rays and body scans from home.

With a few strokes of his keyboard, Bakker accesses a Web database in Crookston. A crystal clear x-ray image pops onto the screen. The speed at which the image arrives is amazing, almost instantaneous.

"Right now we're looking at an ankle, and ... there's a screw in the ankle from an old surgery," Bakker says, pointing to the computer screen. "So I'll look at this and then I'll render an opinion."

What Bakker is able to do from his rural home would be impossible without a huge broadband connection. His home is linked to a DSL line, and two thin fiber optic lines called T-1s. He pays several thousand dollars for Internet speeds that are far beyond what most people need. The lines can handle large amounts of data. Bakker can view and interpret x-rays in a matter of minutes.

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Image USDA loan will improve access

"This is kind of unique at this point," Bakker says, "but this will be much, much more common. This is a good way to help patients."

High speed Internet access is becoming more common in north central Minnesota, due largely to the aggressive efforts of a Bemidji-based cooperative. In 1999, Paul Bunyan Telephone began building a fiber optic network within its 3,300-square-mile territory.

Now the cooperative delivers broadband Internet, telephone service and even digital television to thousands of customers in tiny villages and rural homes throughout the countryside. And there are plans to expand even further.

Last month, Paul Bunyan Telephone received a nearly $54 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- the largest such loan in U.S. history.

Steve Wenzel, state director of the USDA's Rural Development program, says the loan comes from a nearly $2 billion fund to accelerate broadband access in rural America.

Wenzel says small towns need high speed Internet to survive. And he says in many cases, they need the federal government to make it happen.

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Image Ed Treska

"You have to ask the question, 'Would this happen otherwise in the private sector?'" says Wenzel. "And I'm going to say no. ... I see the funds provided by the United States Department of Agriculture to be the great equalizer for rural America."

The loan will allow Paul Bunyan Telephone to expand its services to Cass Lake and Cohasset. And if negotiations are successful, the company may bring its network even farther east, to Grand Rapids.

Just a few years ago, the city of Grand Rapids had no access to broadband Internet. City leaders were desperate. They even considered building their own broadband network. Ed Treska, Grand Rapids city administrator, says the plan would have cost as much as $9 million.

"You have to start somewhere, and that seemed to be the logical place, since nobody else was stepping up to the plate," says Treska. "Traditionally, that's when government does get involved, is when the private sector won't."

But while city leaders were arguing the virtues of a municipally-owned system, the private sector did get involved. The local cable company, Qwest Communications, began offering broadband. Qwest rolled out its broadband service last year. Now there's even a private company offering wireless broadband service.

Treska says it's no longer a question of access. Some Grand Rapids residents now complain the array of broadband services available to them isn't fast enough. Many say they're too expensive. The city is now courting more broadband providers, including Bemidji-based Paul Bunyan Telephone.

"We knew what we wanted," Treska says. "We wanted higher speeds, higher transfer speeds within the Internet environment. But we also wanted a competitive environment. We felt that if we had some competition, the residents of Grand Rapids would benefit by lower prices. And we're hoping that's going to be the case."

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Image Does no good if you're not using it

A study released this month by the Center for Rural Policy and Development shows high prices may be a barrier for some people. Rural broadband providers charge $40 to $50 or more each month -- more than people pay in the Twin Cities. That's because there's less competition in rural Minnesota. Only one-third of rural towns and cities have more than one broadband provider.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development study focused on rural cities and towns. It didn't count people who live at the end of the road, outside those towns. About 900,000 Minnesota residents fall into that category -- about 16 percent of the state's population. Jack Geller, president of the center, guesses many of those people don't have broadband access. But Geller predicts it's only a matter of time.

"I suspect that within the next five years, we will say the service is ubiquitous throughout rural Minnesota," Geller says. "Are we there yet? No, such a statement would certainly be premature. But, five years? Yeah, I don't think that that's really much of going out on a limb at all."

Industry observers say broadband accessibility in rural Minnesota is quickly being replaced by another concern -- whether those with access are actually subscribing to broadband service. The most recent data shows that only 15 percent of rural Minnesota households are going online with a broadband connection.

The Blandin Foundation recently unveiled a new initiative to change that. Blandin contributes to Minnesota Public Radio.

"This really is about public awareness, education and leadership commitment. It's a cultural change we're talking about," says Bernadine Joselyn of the Blandin Foundation.

Joselyn heads up an effort to raise the broadband utilization rate from 15 to 50 percent within five years. They'll recruit community leaders to spread the word about the virtues of broadband.

"It does no good if you have access to it, but you're not using it to promote the economic vitality of your business or improve the quality of life of your rural citizens," says Joselyn.

High speed Internet advocates have reason to be optimistic the medium will continue to expand. At his recent stop in the Twin Cities, President Bush proposed cutting some taxes he sees as barriers to broadband expansion. Meanwhile, Minnesota lawmakers are considering bills that would create a $2 million fund to expand broadband to more rural communities.

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