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Enterprise Editorial: Rural broadband movement gaining momentum

The Park Rapids area residents benefit from a recent investment into extending high-speed internet across the state.

Paul Bunyan Communications last month was awarded a Border to Border Broadband Grant by the state of Minnesota to expand its fiber optic services to portions of southwest Hubbard County and a small portion of west central Becker County. The expansion area is located to the south and west of Park Rapids.

As a result, the company stated in a news release, the cooperative will begin expansion construction this spring that will pass a minimum of 359 locations in portions of Straight River Township in Hubbard County and portions of Osage Township and Green Valley Township in Becker County. The project, along with the cooperative's project in central Itasca County which was also a part of the Border to Border Broadband Grant, is estimated to cost $3.9 million, with Paul Bunyan Communications contributing $2.16 million, $1.74 million from the State of Minnesota Border to Border Grant, and Itasca County contributing up to $75,000 towards the Itasca County portion of the project.

Paul Bunyan Communications expects to develop the specific expansion construction plans by early spring and will contact locations included in the project shortly thereafter. Construction will start in the early summer and will be completed by June 30, 2019.

Like the running of electricity and phone lines to farms a century or more ago, connecting rural America to broadband and to reliable high-speed internet has become as basic and as necessary an undertaking as building passable highways and continuing to find clean water sources.

Encouragingly in Minnesota, the push continues to push broadband deeper into our forests and farms. And even if slowly, we're getting there. We're closer to the $900 million investment a governor's task force of experts determined, after exhaustive study, was needed to achieve border-to-border connection speeds fast enough for video chatting.

This legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers can get us even closer.

Lawmakers last week announced a bill calling for another $100 million in spending for rural broadband projects statewide. Gov. Mark Dayton, in his state budget, released last week, proposed $60 million over two years for rural broadband.

While both proposals may prove a bit ambitious, the Legislature can continue to chip away this session at the worthwhile funding goal, following $20 million approved in 2014, $10 million in 2015, and $35 million allocated last year

Farmers, rural business owners and others need to remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace. Rural broadband is a necessity for them.

For health care, too. More and more, health care is going high-tech, and broadband can deliver quality care to areas outside of large cities.

Despite the chipping away already at the $900 million total funding goal, about 22 percent of homes in rural Minnesota still lack internet connections at basic speeds.