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Minnesota needs better, faster Internet

High-quality access to the Internet is easy to take for granted, especially in our area, where it is readily available. But we shouldn't. It is more than a distraction for many, especially those in our business community. For them, it is a significant engine of economic growth. That's why we need to make sure that every corner of our state has high-speed, reliable access to broadband.

An analysis done for the Greater Minnesota Partnership shows that if we provided for an expansion of high-quality broadband to 95 percent of the state, it would result in:

-A $440 million increase in household incomes.

-More than 15,000 jobs created or sustained.

-More than an additional $1 billion in the state's gross domestic product.

Regardless of whomever voters return to St. Paul next year, making this expansion of broadband must be one of the next Legislature's top priorities. There is simply too much at stake for Minnesotans.

Access to high-speed, reliable Internet is about worldwide commerce, education, health care, agribusiness and — yes — a little bit of social networking.

-Business is increasingly done online, and the ability to sell to consumers worldwide requires reliable, world-class connections.

-As farming becomes even more globally competitive, our communities need to be connected for up-to-the-minute updates on weather, disease identification and commodity prices, alongside GPS navigation.

-Nonmetro Minnesota's long distances require health care provided over broadband, which is already practiced elsewhere.

-Many nonmetro Minnesota parents bring their children to connected areas miles away from their homes. This is not viable to attract new residents and keep our current ones.

As the baby boomers age, the ability to live in remote areas is made easier through the connections broadband provides.

Despite this, we've allowed ourselves to fall behind other states. We rank 23rd in the nation in terms of broadband speeds, according to the Governor's Broadband Task Force. Currently, 93 percent of the metro area meets the low range of the state goals, compared to only 46 percent of nonmetro Minnesota.

It will take $3.2 billion to update our broadband network. In 2013, the governor's task force recommended that we create a $100 million infrastructure fund to begin that process. So far we've made a $20 million investment, so we have some catching up to do.

And this is one of the times that the word "investment" is truly appropriate. We know from studies and other states' experiences that the money spent on creating a state-of-the-art broadband network would, over the course of a short period of time, pay for itself.

You don't have to persuade our business community. In a Connect Minnesota survey of 21,000 state businesses, a majority wanted more bandwidth or faster Internet service. Nearly two-fifths of these Internet-connected businesses reported that they can't get faster service where they are connected. That's bad news; online sales represented more than $26.8 billion in revenues for Minnesota businesses in 2013.

To compete in a global economy, we need a 21st-century infrastructure. That means building up our broadband network. The sooner we begin, the sooner it will start paying big dividends for all Minnesotans.

Erik Simonson (DFL) is the Minnesota state representative for District 7B.

Erik Simonson

Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, represents District 7 in the Minnesota Senate. He may be contacted at (651) 296-4188.