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High-speed Internet coming to thousands more in rural Minnesota

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Thousands more Minnesotans in rural areas will soon have access to high-speed fiber Internet.

RS Fiber Cooperative broke ground on its fiber optic broadband initiative Wednesday in Sibley County, according to a press release.

The project will give high-speed Internet access to approximately 1,600 homes and businesses in Sibley, Renville, Nicollet and McLeod counties by the end of the year. About 90 percent of the service area will have access to high-speed wireless services at that time.

By the end of 2016, the group expects 4,200 homes and businesses to be able to access the new broadband service. The final number of people reached is expected to be about 6,200.

Hiawatha Broadband Communications – which operate similar fiber networks in cities such as Red Wing, Wabasha, Dover and Elgin – is overseeing the design, development and construction of this new fiber optic network, plus the day-to-day management duties, the release says.

The Mankato Free Press says the project has been in the works for six years now. The cost of phase one is $15 million, while the total cost will reach $45 million. It's being paid for by bonds and loan, which will then be paid off via fees the RS Fiber Cooperative collects from customers.

The cooperative is made up of 10 cities and 17 townships in the area, according to its website.

Internet access in rural Minnesota

The governor’s Task Force on Broadband, formed in 2010, set a goal to get every Minnesota resident and business access to broadband Internet by 2015. That’s a minimum download speed of 10-20 Megabits per second.

In the task force’s 2014 annual report, it noted 74.5 percent of Minnesotans now have access to that fast of Internet, or better – up from 61.5 percent one year prior. But that still leaves more than a quarter of Minnesotans with what’s been deemed unsatisfactory service – and the task force says the state is unlikely to meet its 2015 goal.

During the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers considered as much as $100 million in broadband access funding, MinnPost notes. But the final total ended up at about $12 million.

In a 2014 press release, the Greater MN Partnership outlined the stark difference in Web access for greater Minnesota compared to the metro area, with data taken from ConnectMN. It says 92 percent of households in the Twin Cities area have “high-quality broadband” Internet access. Drive outside of the metro, and that number plummets to just 32 percent of households, the group says.

And last fall, a report by nonprofit advocacy group Minnesota Connect found a huge disparity in broadband speeds between those living in the Twins Cities and those living in rural Minnesota.

The impact of broadband

What qualifies as broadband Internet? The FCC defines it as “significantly higher speeds” than traditional dial-up access.

In strict numbers, the FCC says the low-end is 200 kilobits per second (kbps), and that can go up dramatically. High-end services in the U.S. are offering 100 Megabits per second (Mbps). Note, there are 1,024 kilobits in 1 Megabit.

Forbes dug in to a report, which concluded doubling broadband speed for an economy increases its economic output by 0.3 percent. (This report from the Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences Department at Berkeley, comes to a similar conclusion: A 1.19 percent jump in gross domestic product for developed countries when broadband penetration increases 10 percent.)

The Forbes author then focuses on the impact rural access can have.

“Getting everyone, however rural, up to 2 Mbits produces a much better return on investment than trying to make sure that urban areas have 50 Mbits, or 100,” he writes. “Which rather makes sense if it is the move from dial up to broadband which produces the biggest jolt of economic growth. … We do know however, that the move from none to 2 Mbits, or from 256 k to 2 M, does indeed produce those growth dividends.”

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