Congressional subcommittee talks internet
On a typical day inside his Franconia Township warehouse, Matt Crescenzo would be designing and building automated machines such as his Star Lab CNC plasma machine.
But May 30, the owner of Bulltear Industries paused regular business to testify before District 8 Representative Pete Stauber and others on Congress’s Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Infrastructure. If he had to start the company again, he reported, he wouldn’t do it in rural Minnesota. Even with the best internet service available, and in spite of the accompanying $277 monthly bill, calls are dropped and his modem must be rebooted frequently. Lack of internet is hindering business
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Crescenzo was one of four witnesses to testify during the subcommittee’s field hearing on rural broadband last week. The session was held in Crescenzo’s pole barn. Unconventional as the site might have seemed, it was fitting for the topic at hand.
The other three witnesses touched on themes similar to Crescenzo.
“Small businesses are the lifeblood of communities throughout the state and around the nation,” said Marc Johnson, director of the East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative in Braham. “Agriculture, tourism, hospitality, manufacturing, health care, retail and other sectors rely on the internet to communicate with suppliers and customers, to provide their services and to stay viable. These businesses also need an educated workforce willing to live and raise families in rural areas.
“Without access to affordable high speed internet,” he continued, “businesses cannot thrive, families are less likely to locate in the area and it is difficult to provide a fair and equitable education.”
Speaking from a health care perspective, witness Greg Carlson noted that upload speeds of at least five megabytes per second are needed for effective communication in the industry.
“The lack of adequate broadband has become a crisis in rural areas,” he said. “Routine activities of both residents and business now often require internet access. Work-from-home and business-from-home activities are increasing as are technology-based health care making business class broadband availability in rural neighborhoods an economic development and safety issue.”
Adam Artz, a realtor who lives in North Branch, reported that people simply aren’t interested in buying houses without internet access.
“It’s not a matter of value,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s $10,000 less. They don’t want the house. … The internet is no longer a luxury. A negative impact on business plus a negative impact on families equals communities in decline.”
The question of missed potential was also raised.
“When we provide that internet to everyone I think it’s going to unleash the entrepreneurial, creative spirit of America,” Artz said. “There must be massive untapped talent out there.”
“I call that unleashing the economic engine of Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District,” Stauber replied with a smile.
The sweeping takeaway from the testimonies: Internet access can make or break a rural business. And with businesses at stake, rural communities may be at a critical juncture, too.
Stauber, taking it all in, concluded the session with a hopeful tone.
“Rural America matters,” he said. “Your schools matter. Your businesses matter. I’ve been pushing the Small Business Committee to make sure that if families want to live in rural America, rural Minnesota, that they’re able to.
“The elephant in the room, of course, is money,” he continued. “But I want to end with this. At some point in this nation’s history our government decided that everybody would receive United States mail. At some point every mailbox mattered. Think about that. We have to make the investment.”
By the numbers
• 97.9 — Percent of urban Americans with broadband access
• 68.6 — Percent of rural Americans with broadband access
• 400,000 — Number of Minnesotans without internet access
• 6.5 — Percent of the world population online in 2000
• 43 — Percent of the world population online in 2015
• 3.2 billion — Number of people using the internet worldwide
• 17 — Percent of businesses in rural areas
• 97 — Percent of the nation classified as rural