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Bringing broadband to Minnesota

Some Minnesotans can still remember a time when most farms did not have electricity. As recently as 1935, fewer than 12 percent of American farms were wired for electric power.

That was also the year President Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration. As a result, within 15 years, more than three-quarters of all farms in America had electricity.

The incredible innovation and productivity advances in American agriculture during the past 60 years would not have happened if this rural electrical infrastructure had not been built.

Today, our rural communities face a similar technological challenge.

Just as electricity was a central infrastructure of the 20th century, broadband communications will be the same for the 21st century. The question for broadband, as it was for electricity, is whether all communities will be able to share in the full benefits.

Broadband communications allows the high-speed, high-volume transmission of voice, video and data over the Internet and other networks, whether by fiber-optic cable, coaxial cable, wireless technology or satellite.

Broadband offers the promise of transforming how we do business, provide medical care, educate our children, protect public safety and deliver government services.

It holds particular promise for rural areas because broadband communications can erase many of the barriers and costs of physical distance that have traditionally isolated rural communities.

Broadband is increasingly important for job creation and economic development. By one estimate, every percent-age point increase in broad-band penetration per year would lead to the creation of nearly 300,000 new jobs.

But we have work to do be-cause we have fallen behind.

Out of 57 industrialized countries, the U.S now ranks 23rd for access, speed and affordability of broadband. Our average connection speed is 4.7 megabytes per second. To put that in perspective, South Korea's average speed is 33 megabytes per second.

As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over telecommunications issues, I am a strong advocate for building a broadband infrastructure that will foster innovation, promote economic development and create new jobs in all communities, big and small.

In August, I invited Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski to join Minnesota business and community leaders for a summit meeting on how to make broadband a key driver of economic development for Minnesota.

Bruce Kerfoot, owner of the Gunflint Lodge, explained how he would like to put up a website and take online reservations to attract customers from around the world to Minnesota's northern wilderness. But he can't do that with the slow, expensive, unreliable Internet connection he has now.

Sue Lehman, head of economic development for Lac qui Parle County, told the FCC chairman that her county has formed a public-private broadband partnership to attract new businesses and add population. With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they are moving ahead to install fiber-optic broadband service countywide.

In addition, the Blandin Foundation is working with dozens of communities across the state to help them expand broadband access and use.

Efforts like these at the local level must be matched by supportive policies at the national level. A good start is the National Broadband Plan issued earlier this year by the FCC.

It acknowledges that America's broadband infrastructure will be built mainly with private investment, not taxpayer dollars. But it also recognizes government's responsibility to protect consumers with fair rules and robust competition in the broadband marketplace.

In short, neither big government nor big business should be allowed to control the Internet.

Of special interest for rural communities, the plan recommends reform of the Universal Service Fund to reflect the realities of 21st century communications.

Instead of maintaining its historical focus on subsidizing rural telephone service, the fund should be re-focused to support deployment of broadband in rural areas that would otherwise not be served effectively by the private market.

The bottom line is that broadband in the 21st century, like electrical power in the 20th century, equals economic development. We need to make sure the new jobs made possible by broadband are created here in places like Windom or Crookston instead of places like Mumbai or Beijing.

Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., is a member of the U.S. Senate.