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Column: Growing broadband to grow Greater Minnesota

EDEN PRAIRIE -- Broadband Internet expansion is often rightfully regarded as the modern equivalent of rural electrification efforts of the 1940s: infrastructure improvements that will expand economic, health and educational opportunities for communities beyond anything imaginable today.

This month Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Minnesota Legislature placed Minnesota at the forefront of rural broadband expansion by enacting a new law establishing clear goals for broadband growth. In particular, the law calls for statewide broadband download speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) by 2015; many stretches of Greater Minnesota currently have download speeds of a fraction of this target. It also established an advisory council to support the Minnesota Department of Commerce in achieving this goal, and requires an annual report to the governor and legislature on the progress of broadband expansion.

Minnesota is leading the nation in its commitment to broadband infrastructure because our state leaders of all geographic and political persuasions understand that broadband expansion is central to improving our state's future. Currently Minnesota ranks only 21st in the nation with average broadband download speeds of 5.4 Mbps. Internet upgrades promise to unleash Minnesota's potential, including:

Economic Expansion. With the knowledge industry currently comprising 80 percent of Minnesota's economy, investments in broadband Internet expansions will be central to growing jobs for years to come. Recent studies have found that every $1 invested in broadband results in a tenfold return on investment. Broadband investments will offer Minnesota near-term job creation benefits while providing the resources needed to let even the smallest towns compete in the online global economy.

New Education Horizons. Online classes are making new learning opportunities available to students of all ages -- from interactive programs connecting elementary students across the state or nation, to distance learning programs that make top-notch advanced degrees accessible to students in the most remote corners of Minnesota. Greater Minnesota residents will depend on this expanded education to develop new ideas and opportunities in their communities.

Virtual Health Diagnosis. As our state ages, broadband Internet will offer new opportunities for retired residents seek medical care from doctors in the nation's best clinics, and all from their own clinics or even their homes.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its National Broadband Plan in March to provide a federal roadmap to broadband growth. With decisive action by Congress and President Obama, our entire country stands to benefit in much the same way. Nationwide, only 50 percent of rural residents have broadband service today, according to a 2010 study by the FCC. Some states have broadband speeds only one-quarter those of their urban peers. Unfortunately, federal talks of broadband expansion are stymied in political wrangling while rural stretches continue to face the economic, education and healthcare disadvantages of inadequate broadband access.

Minnesota's leaders should be applauded for taking decisive action to expand our state's broadband Internet capabilities. Now it's time for Congress to follow Minnesota's lead.

Rick King chaired the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force, which offered statewide broadband recommendations that served as the basis for the state law. He is the Chief Technology Officer for Thomson Reuters Professional.