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Stimulus money pegged for broadband access

The Obama administration on Wednesday released $4 billion in federal economic stimulus funds targeted for broadband access across America.

The funding is the first round of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act loans and grants to help bring broadband service to unserved and underserved communities across America, the administration said.

"This means a lot for Minnesota," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., said Wednesday in an interview while in Bemidji holding an economic development and tourism roundtable. "How are we ever going to compete with China and India if we don't have Internet connection?"

She was also in Park Rapids, where she and Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, were a roundtable discussion included broadband access.

"In a lot of tourism areas, we're realizing there are some visitors who want to have Internet connections," Klobuchar said. "We want to compete not only for jobs but also for the convenience of luring people to visit Minnesota."

Even the stoic Itasca State Park is now providing wireless connection throughout the park, starting with a few campgrounds.

While Bemidji is a leader in rural broadband access, nearby areas such as Bagley still lag, Klobuchar said.

"We still 44th out of 50 in Internet speed," she said of Minnesota in the nation. "We have Internet but sometimes it can be expensive. I think the Bemidji area is a little ahead of its time."

"Today's announcement is a first step toward realizing President Obama's vision of a nationwide 21st-century communications infrastructure -- one that encourages economic growth, enhances America's global competitiveness and helps address many of America's most pressing challenges," said Vice President Joe Biden in a statement

The stimulus bill provided a total of $7.2 billion to the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service to accelerate broadband deployment in areas of the country that have been without the high-speed infrastructure, the administration said. Of that funding, NTIA will utilize $4.7 billion to deploy broadband infrastructure in un-served and underserved areas in the United States, expand public computer center capacity and encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service. RUS will invest $2.5 billion to facilitate broadband deployment in rural communities.

"The Department of Agriculture's Broadband Initiatives Program will bring high-speed Internet service to communities across the country, create thousands of jobs, and improve economic, health care, and educational opportunities available in rural communities," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "This funding is a down payment on the President's commitment to bring the educational and economic benefits of the internet to all communities."

Public workshops on the funding will be held in July, including one in Minneapolis. Applications for funding will be taken starting July 14 through Aug. 14.

"Hopefully the guidelines will have been set up now that people will be applying for these grants," Klobuchar said. "There's grants out of both Ag and Commerce."

She likened the need for rural access to broadband access to that of electricity in the 1930s. The Rural Electrification Act was established to bring electricity outward to rural areas where it was most costly but considered an important public utility.

At that time, only 15 percent of the nation's farmhouses had electricity. After the REA, 75 percent of the people had electricity.

"That's the broadband issue of today, to get Internet service out to" rural areas, she said.

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