High-speed Internet access is as necessary for economic growth and quality of life as electricity.

That was the repeated message at a Wednesday roundtable discussion in Brainerd led by Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who announced two broadband Internet access grants in the region. The access grants represented $2.53 million for central Minnesota communities.

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Those grants, matched by private investment from Consolidated Telecommunications Co. (CTC) and Arvig Main Street Communications, will bring Internet access to areas without service or are underserved.

A total of $19.4 million in grants are going to 17 projects to help with infrastructure, allowing greater Minnesota communities to gain reliable Internet access. The grants attracted an additional $25.8 million in matching funds. The panel discussion in Brainerd - in the new high-tech CTC room at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce - was part of a statewide broadband tour this week.

With the $2 million grant, CTC plans to bring high-speed Internet access to 247 unserved and 90 underserved premises in Cass, Crow Wing and Morrison counties. And CTC is matching the project with a private investment of $2.22 million. Residents in the Sauk Lake area in Todd County and rural Stearns County will gain from an investment of $536,702 in grant money to reach 217 unserved premises where broadband in not available. The project has a $1.07 million price tag with Arvig making a private investment of $536,703.

Panelists included: Dr. Timothy Yeh, oncologist; Mark Birkholz, director of southern markets with Arvig; Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Office of Broadband Development; Kristi Westbrock, CTC chief operations officer; Brent Gunsbury, Bercher Design and Construction president; and Phil Trusty, owner of Crow Wing Lake Campground.

"We know, and the Legislature knows, what everyone in this room knows, which is businesses and families and schools need broadband just like they need electricity and water," Smith said. "Broadband isn't a nice thing to have. It's a necessary thing to have when it comes to economic development."

Examples included: the student who was trying to complete online studies; the family trying to keep a loved one at home utilizing online monitoring options; the individual trying to access their own medical data and telemedicine; the home-based business and entrepreneurs trying to grow. Smith said all of those examples are why the state is so committed to broadband development.

"We also know we have a long way to go," Smith said, adding while the $20 million investment is vitally important, Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal includes another $30 million for the the Broadband Infrastructure Grant Fund. The grant fund was designed to help with the cost of putting in broadband infrastructure in low-population density areas. Forty applications were received from across the state and 17 projects were awarded meaning more than 6,000 households, businesses and institutions (such as schools, city halls and fire stations) will benefit from the access.

The projects lay the ground for future expansion and development, MacKenzie said. The grant recipients have two seasons to complete the work.

Region Five Development Commission is working with CTC on the project, along with others in the collaborative effort. Westbrock relayed comments from area residents who stated the lack of broadband negatively affected businesses and kept residents from being able to telecommute. Westbrock said saying it's too expensive doesn't resonate with the residents seeking service. Partnerships are essential to meet the underserved areas of Region Five, Westbrock said.

"It is our goal in this region to demonstrate to those who recreate up north that our region is tech ready for telecommuters and businesses considering relocation," Westbrock said, also noting home-based businesses are also part of the mix. Westbrock said CTC's total goal for a four-year phased project consists of 344 route miles of fiber capable of bringing broadband to more than 2,000 unserved and underserved households and small business completing the connectivity for Fort Ripley and Fairview townships.

From Perham-based Arvig, Birkholz said access to broadband gives school children and adult learners the opportunity for meaningful research. It allows telecommuters to gain employment without leaving the rural area homes, families and communities where they participate in the local economy. Customers will have access to schedule medical appointments, refill prescriptions, send messages to physicians and see test results with broadband.

In terms of economic development, Trusty said having broadband is a need not a want in the area. Trusty said for a hospitality business, having broadband access it translates to having customers staying longer. Today one of the first questions is whether the campground has Wi-Fi. "It's a big deal for us," Trusty said. The campground has 22 weeks of seasonal operation with most of the business on weekends. Trusty said customers make decisions on where they stay based on broadband access and if he has it, the benefit may be in an additional day or two of a customer's stay.

Yeh said his in the last six years there has been a massive transition to medical records, and review of medical imaging and video conferencing are common in a cancer practice. Yeh said Cass County Sheriff's deputies know he parks by Mount Ski Gull trying to access a signal to transmit large files as he's been checked on more than once. Yeh also uses local restaurants to access free Wi-Fi using his mobile office in his car.

"If you ask me later I can tell you the best spots in the parking lot," Yeh said. "My situation points out modern care in all of Minnesota requires broadband access."

Gunsbury said Maine is the worst state in the nation in terms of the speed. Gunsbury slowed his sentence delivery to make his point that his and Yeh's neighborhood outside of Brainerd is 10 times slower than Maine. It makes it hard to keep up and be competitive, he said.

"I am not the person who would say I want more government funds - I'll just tell you that right now - but this makes sense," Gunsbury said. "This is a great investment for us and our community."

Gunsbury pointed to people who would live in the area but decide not to because they need to be connected to their businesses. Bringing those people here to live and work has a ripple of benefits across the community, Gunsbury said.

In the panel discussion, Smith asked for feedback on striking the right balance between a private and public venture. Rural electrification was noted as a model from the past. Westbrock said the rural telecommunications companies grew from independence but service to the edges of the region is not financially feasible without a partnership. Birkholz said from a business side the numbers don't work and that's where projects like this make a big difference.

Cheryal Lee Hills, Region Five, executive director said for the organization it was never just a social advocacy issue of getting service to the last underserved area but it was about economic potential, clearly knowing innovation and entrepreneurship happens in those rural areas and the last mile of service.

Hills said this is the first step and service is still needed in areas like Todd County, where service is even worse and poverty is an issue. Hills said the goal is to try to bring service to all those people who plead for service for their families and businesses.

RENEE RICHARDSON, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.