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Wenzel says 2002 Farm Bill helped rural infrastructure

Minnesota's rural infrastructure -- from hospitals to broadband Internet access -- benefited from $4.1 billion in federal funds from the 2002 Farm Bill, says Steve Wenzel, Minnesota state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development agency.

"We do everything in USDA Rural Development," Wenzel said Wednesday as guest speaker to Paul Bunyan Telephone Cooperative's annual meeting.

The latest project, he said, was a $22 million hospital at St. James, Minn.

And one of the largest new jobs for the rural agency is moving high technology to rural areas, to which Wenzel said Paul Bunyan Telephone is a model.

PBT has brought "upgrades of high-speed Internet, digital television and other aspects of advanced telecommunications technology to the people of northern Minnesota, and to your service area in three counties," Wenzel said.

USDA's Rural Development is covered in two titles of the farm bill, of which all but one title of the new 2008 Farm Bill has become law over President Bush's veto. The five-year, $290 billion farm bill mostly goes to nutrition programs, but also sends funds for rural water infrastructure improvements to funding tribal colleges.

"The mission of USDA Rural Development is two-fold," Wenzel said. "It is to improve the quality of life of the people of rural America and rural Minnesota, and secondly to create jobs and economic development in rural America and rural Minnesota."

The new farm bill will continue infrastructure investments in rural Minnesota, he said, adding that the 2002 Farm Bill send $500 million to $650 million a year to Minnesota since 2002.

"Our budget from 2002 to now nationally has gone from $9 billion to $18 billion," he said, adding it was $17.4 billion for the 2007 fiscal year.

With PBT the beneficiary of USDA Rural Development funds in 2004, Wenzel said that it's "been great to see the progress that has been made throughout rural Minnesota and especially the quality services that Paul Bunyan Telephone provides members here in this region."

PBT General Manager Paul Freude said the cooperative has grown now to 26,000 access lines, 16,000 Internet data lines and 12,000 digital television lines. PBT continues to upgrade with fiber optics, he said, and it recently signed an agreement to acquire the Blackduck Telephone Company.

Digital services now reach 98 percent of PBT's service area, Freude said, and PBT continues to strive to reach 100 percent.

"The one aspect of the farm bill to which there was no controversy," Wenzel said in an interview, "was Title IX and Title VI, which are the rural development parts of the farm bill. There was unanimous support for rural development, both in the Congress and by the president."

The administration, in its farm bill, "continued the expansion of broadband and bringing more dollars to high-speed Internet technology."

The new farm bill improves access to broadband telecommunications services in rural areas with a greater focus on the rural communities of greatest need, according to a U.S. House Agriculture Committee summary of Title VI, which covers rural development.

It also extends and makes major changes to the broadband program to focus loans on underserved rural areas.

The one achievement from the 2002 Farm Bill were the advancements in making money available for Internet technology, Wenzel said, plus telecommunications technology, specially in medical services.

Three hospitals in Minnesota -- Crosby-Ironton, Wadena and Fosston -- received Tele-Medicine technology to allow more advanced hospitals in surgery techniques to advise the smaller hospitals, he said.

"We look to Paul Bunyan Telephone for being the model example of high-speed Internet technology, advanced technology and what has happened here can be replicated throughout the rest of rural Minnesota," said Wenzel, a former DFL state representative from Little Falls.

PBT's efforts to upgrade telecommunications, and digital upgrades since 2005, mean "the advancement in technology would be equal or greater than anything offered in the Twin Cities metropolitan area," he remembers one plan stating.

"Seldom have I seen such enthusiasm among the members of a telephone or electric cooperative as right here in Paul Bunyan Telephone," he said.