Broadband summit asks how to close rural digital divide

A new survey out this week shows that a majority of rural Minnesotans have access to faster Internet connections. Yet some other trends are not as hopeful.

One in four Minnesota households, mostly older and poorer residents, have no computer at home, according to the survey prepared by the University of Minnesota Crookston and the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter.

Bernadine Joselyn from the Blandin Foundation says the trend is toward better Internet access across rural Minnesota.

In 2000, only 6 percent of the state's rural residents had access to faster Internet connections, according to Joselyn. By 2005 the number rose to about 25 percent. Now, nearly two-thirds of people living in rural areas can buy a fast Internet connection.

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But age and income are key factors defining Minnesota's rural digital divide.

For example, more than 80 percent of the state's rural residents 55 and younger have a computer at home, compared to less than 40 percent of people who are 65 or older, according to Joselyn.

A similar pattern exists in terms of income. While more than 87 percent of those making $50,000 a year or more have a computer at home, only 42 percent of those making less than $25,000 do.

Joselyn says the rural Internet divide impedes better health care, education and business development in those parts of the state.

A summit focusing on rural broadband access drew a standing-room-only audience on Tuesday at the University of Minnesota. It was organized by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and featured FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

Genachowski said the challenge to closing the Internet divide in rural areas is to find a way to use the universal service fee that all telephone customers pay, to help expand broadband access.

Some smaller communities in Minnesota are getting a financial boost to help improve broadband access, in the form of federal grants.

Lac Qui Parle County was one recipient -- receiving a grant worth more than $9.6 million.

Among other things, it means 5,000 of the county's 8,000 residents will someday have access to a fiber optic Internet connection.

Pam Lehmann, the economic development officer for the county, said there's still a bit of education to be done on what that means -- as illustrated by the question put to her by one of the older residents.

"Broadband? Is that a new chemical they're going to use on the fields?" Lehman related.

Lehmann says more Lac Qui Parle residents will get answers this week to many of their questions about the new Internet connections.

"We're deploying a mobile computer lab that's going to go around and offer free access to computers, Internet service and training to everyone," she said.