Sen. Klobuchar hears from officials about sub-par telecommunications

Rural telecommunication infrastructure - cellular and broadband - was the focus of a roundtable discussion Wednesday with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and state Rep. Brita Sailer hearing from area residents and officials.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, right, talks with North Memorial Medical Center paramedic Brent Haynes about rural telecommunications. (Anna Erickson / Enterprise)

Rural telecommunication infrastructure - cellular and broadband - was the focus of a roundtable discussion Wednesday with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and state Rep. Brita Sailer hearing from area residents and officials.

Jobs are going to India and Pakistan that should go to Park Rapids, Klobuchar said of the county's sub-par telecommunications network.

The former Hennepin County attorney said she is keenly aware of law enforcement's need for telecommunication.

"The issue is coverage," sheriff Gary Mills said. The area has been touted as a destination point for outdoor enthusiasts - snowmobilers and ATV riders. But cell phone coverage in the event of an accident often proves unpredictable - at best - in the remote areas of the county.

"People assume we have it," he said. But, in some instances, they walk three-quarters of a mile to gain reception.


"Cell phones are lifelines," he said. "But we know where the dead spots are."

"I remember driving to a gas station to use a phone," chief deputy Frank Homer said of communication two decades ago. Confidential information is transacted via cell phone, as opposed to radio, he said. "This is scanner land," he joked of area residents monitoring emergency calls.

Quick action is imperative, Homer stressed. "But we lose time if we lose conversation." This can result in a "lost case" or imperiling an accident victim.

Mills recalled learning of a serious injury ATV accident via cell phone, the reporting party unsure of the location and the call cutting out. The 20-minute wait for another call seemed an eternity.

"The time factor is a big issue in this area," Homer told Klobuchar and Sailer.

An education plus

Countywide high speed Internet would enhance education, Park Rapids school district technology director Jeff Hunt said.

Abundant opportunities are available, but require high speed, as opposed to dial-up Internet. Online textbooks, videos and testing, including sample SAT tests, cannot be fully utilized. Science tests, Hunt said, are online, but require high speed Internet.


Superintendent Glenn Chiodo said the need for "paper" backup to the Internet creates additional costs. The staff is hampered by the reality students may not be able to pull up information on the Web.

A "parent connect" system is available, where parents fill out a form, are given a password and can see their child's progress via the school's Web site. But slow dial-up Internet can prove frustrating, Chiodo said.

Cell phone coverage when sports teams travel to remote destinations is also a concern.

He recalled dealing with the city water contamination issue a few years ago while returning from a trip north. "It was an absolute circus," he said of losing reception mid-sentence.

"Fortunately we have a veteran staff that was able to handle it."

'It costs to pay taxes'

As the economy declines, Becky Walpole said the Park Rapids Area Library is seeing increasing use of its eight computers.

People are giving up the Internet as a cost-saving measure, the library manager told Klobuchar, and heading to the library. "It's a huge need, and we can't keep up."


People are filing for unemployment, taxes and requesting birth certificates. They conduct online job searches and compile résumés. Computers also serve as testing proctors.

In the summer, patrons wait up to two hours to gain access to a computer. After school, kids head in to conduct research, but wait in line.

Katie Kueber of Two Inlets Mill, expressed frustration with being required to file state tax reports online, while lacking access to high-speed Internet.

"It's discriminatory," she said. "It's costing me to pay taxes."

Technology infrastructure is key to recruiting business, David Collins of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission pointed out.

He cited a recent business opting out of relocating because of the area's lack of telecommunications redundancy, which assures network reliability.

Dennis Mackedanz of North Ambulance encouraged "shared towers," as opposed to a single entity assuming ownership.

Maxine Norman of the University of Minnesota Extension introduced information on the installation of high-speed optical fiber in the Menahga and Sebeka area.


The award-winning initiative, engineered by the West Central Telephone Association, recruited more than 100 people in the planning process, the Extension assisting.

The community, she said, is now engaged in a number of projects, including building sites to promote and market businesses and putting the historical society's treasures online for the first time.

Communities can use broadband infrastructure to achieve community and economic development goals and improve quality of life for their residents, Norman said.

Retain intercarrier rules

Paul Bunyan Telephone's Gary Johnson asked the senator to help convince the FCC to "proceed cautiously as they contemplate drastic changes to intercarrier rules and universal service.

"Current intercarrier compensation rules make the CLEC (competitive local exchange carrier) business model possible," Johnson told the senator.

(Examples of intercarriers are MCI, Sprint and Verizon.)

But sweeping modifications being proposed by the FCC would eliminate the compensation for CLECs - including Paul Bunyan Telephone - without creating any offsetting universal service mechanism, he said.


Intercarrier compensation is a major source of revenue for the telecommunications cooperative, he said. Paul Bunyan Telephone is recognized nationally for its advanced fiber infrastructure.

He also advocated expanding the Universal Service Fund (USF) to include broadband services. Currently, only investments in local telephone service are supported.

Former Sprint executive Kevin Brauer, also in attendance, agreed with the recommendations.

A new FCC

"We will be reinventing the wheel with a new FCC," Klobuchar said. Congress, she said, intends to move forward immediately on infrastructure and energy funding.

"The three major focuses will be the economy, health care and energy" when Congress reconvenes after the presidential inauguration.

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