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Otter Tail woman is poster child for Web woes

ST. PAUL -- Judy Adamec of Minnesota's Otter Tail County is a poster child for rural Internet connection problems.

"I don't pay bills online because it is quicker to write a check and mail it," Adamec told a task force studying broadband service across the state.

The task force's recommendations, released Friday, call for a dramatic expansion and speeding up of broadband service.

The report, however, stopped short of detailing how the expansion would be funded.

The report did not call for state spending, but left that option open.

The group's chairman said Adamec's plight shows how many Minnesotans are at a disadvantage.

"If Ms. Adamec's connection doesn't allow her to pay bills online, she certainly will not be able to take advantage of online education, telemedicine or telecommuting," said Rick King, chief technology officer of Eagan-based Thompson Reuters Legal.

King said high-speed Internet connections that broadband provides are a necessity, not a luxury.

A 2015 goal of making the needed changes was set, although lawmakers said that due to the recession the state likely will not be able to contribute financially for the time being.

King suggested that the state can use "the bully pulpit" to convince private companies, such as those providing telephone and Internet, to expand and speed up services.

The report shows that only Washington County, in the eastern Twin Cities area, meets the broadband speed guidelines set for 2015. Washington is one of several counties, mostly in the Twin Cities area, with 98 percent or 99 percent broadband coverage.

At the other extreme, just 37 percent of those living in extreme northeastern Minnesota's Cook County have access to any broadband service, and what is available is among the slowest in the state.

"We have allowed our Internet access to lag in Minnesota for too long," said Chairwoman Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, who heads a Senate communications committee and authored legislation establishing the task force.

Lagging broadband service hurts the state's ability to recover from the current economic slow-down, added Sen. John Doll, DFL-Burnsville, and Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul. The two conducted a hearing Friday to hear the task force's recommendations.

Doll said a better rural Internet connection would mean those residents "will have access to the world that is limited now."

And, he added, "a fully connected" state is a selling point when Minnesota tries to attract new businesses.

King said not only do rural areas have broadband speed problems, so do many metro areas. Just 17 percent of Minnesota meets the task force's 2015 goals and 6 percent of the state (100,000 homes) has no high-speed Internet service, he said, and old-fashioned dial-up service is not acceptable.

"It was clear the entire population of the state was looking for more speed," said Commerce Commissioner Glenn Wilson.