Column: Keeping rural communities connected to the world
WASHINGTON -- Distance has always been a tough economic challenge for rural Minnesota. Cars and highways have gone a long way toward shortening that distance. Now, modern communications are bringing the world even closer.
With interactive video, a patient in Lac qui Parle County can be seen by a medical specialist in Minneapolis. With e-commerce, a small business in Fergus Falls can sell its product to anyone, anywhere. With online learning, a student in Two Harbors can tune in to a class at Stanford University.
Many companies see telecommuting as an important way to attract and retain the best, most productive workers, wherever they may be. I want to see these jobs in Lanesboro or Crookston, not China or India.
Just as we've built a transportation infrastructure of roads and bridges, we now need a 21st century communications infrastructure to keep our rural communities connected with the world. Whether its phone service or high-speed Internet, it needs to be accessible, affordable and reliable.
A few problems stand in the way. As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, I'm working to fix them along with some of my Republican colleagues from other rural states.
One problem that affects a lot of people, not just rural residents, is the "locked" cell phone.
When you sign up for a wireless plan and buy a cell phone, many providers "lock" the phone to their service. If you move to a new area and find your phone doesn't get good reception, or if you're simply dissatisfied and want to switch plans, your cell phone becomes useless and you're forced to buy a new one.
I believe consumers should be free to choose the phone and service that best fits their needs and budgets, and they deserve to keep and use the phones they've already bought.
That's why I've introduced the Wireless Consumer Choice Act. This bipartisan legislation directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take action so consumers will be able to unlock their phones when they switch carriers.
Another problem has been around for a while, but just doesn't seem to go away. Some long-distance providers refuse to connect calls that must go through a small rural carrier because they don't want to pay the small charge that helps support rural phone service.
As a result, the caller might hear the phone ring, but the person at the other end of the line doesn't. Or the caller hears a message that the call can't be completed. Or a call is suddenly disconnected in the middle of a conversation.
It's more than a nuisance. How can you run a business with unreliable, poor-quality phone service like that?
I've urged the FCC to crack down on phone carriers that do this. Just a few weeks ago the FCC reached a settlement with one offender, Level 3 Communications. The company must now comply with strict call-completion standards and pay a one million dollar fine.
This is a positive step and I'll continue to work with the FCC to make sure rural residents and businesses get reliable phone service.
Finally, one more challenge is to make sure rural Minnesota has affordable access to high-speed Internet, known as broadband.
In places like Brainerd and Park Rapids, resort owners have told me how broadband has become essential to their businesses. They need it for high-quality interactive websites to advertise and reach potential customers. And many vacationers won't go to a place where high-speed Internet isn't available.
I've always been a strong advocate for broadband and I've helped secure grants from the U.S. Agriculture and Commerce departments to expand broadband access in rural Minnesota. As technology advances, I will continue working to see that our rural communities have the tools they need to stay connected.
A retired farmer once told me there was a time when all you needed to make it in rural Minnesota was a tractor and a pickup truck, preferably both. Those are still good things to have. But if you really want to make it today, you've got to have good phone service and high-speed Internet to stay connected with the world.