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Pioneer Editorial: Broadband for success in rural U.S.

More and more, access to broadband Internet is becoming not only a tool for maintaining business competitiveness but also a means of survival for rural America.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture underscored that point this week in a report, "Broadband Internet's Value for Rural America," by the department's Economic Research Service. The analysis found that rural communities with greater broadband Internet access had greater economic growth than areas with less access. Employment growth was higher and non-farm private earnings greater in counties with a longer history of broadband availability.

By 2007, the study found, most households -- 82 percent -- with in-home Internet access had a broadband connection. However, there was a marked difference between urban and rural broadband use. Only 70 percent of rural households with in-home Internet access had a broadband connection in 2007, compared with 84 percent of urban households, USDA said.

Rural America has shared in the growth of the Internet economy, the study found. Such benefits as online course offerings for students and continuing education programs have improved educational opportunities, especially in small isolated rural areas. Telemedicine and telehealth have been hailed as vital to health care provision in rural communities.

Expanding broadband Internet to more rural areas is a rising goal, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, said earlier this week. The U.S. House Agriculture Committee chairman said his panel will focus on the use of federal economic stimulus monies for broadband expansion, making sure it is used to bring the service to now-remote rural areas, rather than to improve or expand large providers' service in more urban areas.

It's also a goal for U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tim Vilsack, who said this week that "rebuilding and revitalizing rural communities is one of my top goals and a key component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act." The study, he said, "reaffirms that expanding access to broadband is a catalyst for economic development."

The Recovery Act provides $7.2 billion to the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration and USDA's Rural Utilities Service to accelerate broadband deployment in unserved, underserved and rural areas.

Hopefully the day will come soon when rural businesses and families will have the same economic opportunities as do their urban counterparts, opportunities that will allow them to enjoy the quality of place that rural America offers without missing a beat with the rest of the world.