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Retooling for a modern transportation infrastructure

In the 20th century the development of new infrastructure helped turn the United States into the greatest superpower the world has ever seen. Electrifying rural America, providing phone service, the Interstate Highway System, airports for the jet age, even opening the Great Lakes to the oceans of the globe with the St. Lawrence Seaway gave our society mobility for people and products, as well as the ability instantly communicate across vast distances.

The 20th century was a time when new ideas changed everything. Now, in the 21st century, we are on the verge of a new transformational era, with new technologies for transportation and communication.

In 1960 there were 74 million cars and trucks on the nation's highways, today there are 250 million; adding a few more lanes of highway to our interstate system will not meet our growing needs. We need to develop new modes of transportation. Rail to move people and freight and better public transportation in our cities and in our countryside are examples of the work the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is working on right now.

Advances in communications can help us address our transportation issues. New broadband technologies are making it possible to completely redefine the workplace and the marketplace. This has the potential to allow companies to employ workers in a virtual office environment, reducing or eliminating the need of many workers to commute to and from work daily.

Companies will benefit from a more flexible and productive workforce and the ability to draw on employees from any location. Rural economies will benefit because the people who live there will not have to move to large cities to get high paying, professional jobs. Workers will benefit with a better quality of life and more flexible work hours.

Broadband communications can also bring health and safety to our rural communities. Providing government services on line will save travel and time; telemedicine will allow Minnesotans to remain in our homes as we age, online education can keep rural communities alive and young, giving them access to experts and resources around the world.

According to a recent state-wide broadband mapping exercise, 96 percent of Minnesotans have access to broadband as defined by the Federal Communications Commission (768 Kbps or more). This is an outdated definition of broadband. Technology has advanced considerably and in some areas of Minnesota, we see consumer offers for broadband at speeds as high as 50 Mbps, 65 times faster than the FCC definition.

It is past time for the FCC to update its definition, and bring it into the 21st century. FCC officials say they intend to do so in their National Broadband Plan due in February. Our sources tell us they'll raise it by a factor of at least five.

That is not enough. Our state task force set the minimum at 10-20 Mbps by 2015, and we consider that a "floor" for all Minnesotans. Speeds will be tens if not hundreds of times faster in 2015 in many areas.

The Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force report released last week sets ambitious goals for the state. We need to meet them if we want to meet the challenge of retooling our transportation system for the 21st century.

Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, is a member of the U.S. House and chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Rick King is chief technology officer of Thomson Reuters Professional and chairman of Minnesota's Ultra High Speed Broadband Task Force.