(TNS) — Standing outside the Nobles County, Minn., Government Center on the afternoon of July 3 with city and county officials, Sen. Amy Klobuchar discussed her proposed legislation that would invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities across the country.
Klobuchar, who co-chairs the Senate Broadband Caucus, introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act on July 1. In the House of Representatives, the legislation is being led by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat.
Joining Klobuchar during her press conference Friday were Nobles County Commissioners Robert Demuth Jr., Don Linssen and Gene Metz, Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle and City Council member Amy Ernst, who is also Independent School District 518’s technology director.
Given that COVID-19 resulted in distance learning in District 518 and thousands of other school districts this spring, Klobuchar noted the importance of her proposal. “I talked to a number of superintendents about this, where you maybe have 10 percent of your kids with pencil and paper … and they can’t interact,” Klobuchar said. “There was a story of a girl just last week out of Otter Tail County who drove to Battle Lake to do her biology quizzes in the liquor store parking lot.”
“When this whole pandemic went down, we sent 3,500 kids home with iPads and then we sent all our staff home with laptops,” Ernst shared during the press conference. “It was equally as important for our staff to have an adequate and reliable internet. A lot of them had internet access of some kind, but maybe not reliable, so it would be nice if this broadband bill focuses on the reliability of it as well.”
Klobuchar’s Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act is intended “to close the digital divide and connect Americans to ensure they have increased access to education, health care and business opportunities.”
In rural Minnesota, Klobuchar said Friday, it’s critical that the ag sector has access to high-speed internet.
“With modern-day farming, you’ve got to have access,” Klobuchar said. “I remember when we had avian flu, one of the companies actually put in its own broadband so they could monitor temperature for their turkeys growing.
“These are the kinds of things that are going on all the time. But to me it’s not really separate from the pandemic, because we know it was an issue before the pandemic for students.”
Klobuchar cited statistics that reveal 16 percent of rural households in Minnesota currently don’t have high-speed internet. That translates to about 140,000 households.
“For Worthington at the start of the pandemic … 500 of 3,500 students didn’t have internet access,” she said, explaining that those numbers were eventually cut in half thanks to the efforts of local internet providers.
Metz, who serves on the Lismore Cooperative Telephone Co. board of directors, expressed hope that the bill would provide much-needed funding for infrastructure while also providing a boost for local telecommunications companies.
“That’s why we did this bill,” Klobuchar responded.
Metz also acknowledged that the legislation would also prove beneficial “if the new normal is working remotely.” Klobuchar agreed, noting the high number of individuals already working in remote locations while adding that many are also relying on such technology as FaceTime to visit with loved ones who reside in care facilities.
Kuhle, in brief remarks to the senator, thanked Klobuchar for visiting Worthington and bringing her legislation forward, and also spoke about the overall health of the community.
“In Worthington and Nobles County, the number of positive (COVID-19) cases has really been pretty level for the last month,” Kuhle said. “Even with JBS opening up, residents have been doing a really good job, and businesses. We’re holding steady and have a really low death count.”
Linssen also commended Klobchar and encouraged her to expand her focus toward another area.
“Once you get broadband done, I think you need to get to work on the rest of the infrastructure in this country,” he said. “I’m really concerned about how bad and falling apart it is. … Send the money here, and not send it elsewhere.”
Money for high-speed broadband would certainly come southwest Minnesota’s way if the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act passes, and Klobuchar said it’s more than past time.
“Iceland does it, and they have volcanoes,” she said. “I don’t understand why we can’t do it in the southwest region here and they can do it in Iceland.”
©2020 The Daily Globe (Worthington, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.