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Klobuchar bill aims to save broadband money

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ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. - Minnesotans get frustrated enough with road construction and paying taxes that they should not have to put up with both when unnecessary, Sen. Amy Klobuchar says.

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The Minnesota Democrat and other U.S. senators are pushing a bill to require that when a state builds a road with federal money that broadband conduit be installed at the same time. Otherwise, Klobuchar said, the new road may need to be torn up again to install broadband cabling that carries Internet and other signals across the state.

"Let's be smart about this," Klobuchar said Monday at a western Twin Cities construction site. "Let's dig once. Let's save taxpayer money, at the same time make it easier to get to where you want to go."

Installing the conduit - essentially an empty pipe up to 1.5 inches across - at the same time as a road is built is much cheaper than doing it after a road is in place. Once the conduit is installed, broadband cables can be added at any time.

"We can save 70 percent of the cost," Klobuchar said.

With thousands of miles of broadband lines already in place across the state, there are hundreds of new miles installed each year, according to Marilyn Remer of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

In most cases, broadband cable is laid near a rural road's fence line, added MnDOT's Glen Leigner. In cities, however, cables often are placed under highways.

Roads do need to be torn up when broadband cables must cross them.

Telephone companies across the state are upgrading to fiber optic cable, which carries much more data than traditional metal wire.

Most expense of connecting communities with broadband comes from tearing up roads where the cabling is installed, Klobuchar said.

The bill remains a work in progress. When a reporter asked if major railroad work, such as is needed before many passenger rail lines are opened, would be included, she said that she would look into that.

As written, the bill she co-sponsors with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., would not include rebuilt roads. However, Klobuchar showed a willingness to expand the measure.

MnDOT officials say they have not been consulted about Klobuchar's bill.

Klobuchar said that while she thinks the bill would help rural and suburban communities get hooked to the Internet and other broadband services, she could not provide data about how much conduit would be laid under the proposal.

She also had no estimate about how much her bill could save governments and broadband providers.

The federal government reports that relatively few new miles of roads are built across the country. In 2006, for instance, just 5,000 new miles were built; about 14,000 miles were constructed a year earlier.

"Broadband is becoming an increasingly important part of the economy," Klobuchar said.

The senator has worked on other bills to expand broadband.

"America is actually a laggard when it comes to broadband," she said. "The U.S. now perches 24th in the world for broadband penetration. Canada has a higher level of broadband penetration and digital opportunity than we do. Minnesota has work to do."

ddavis@forumcomm.com

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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