By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON — The Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group (SWMBG), composed of nine rural communities in southwest Minnesota, has been awarded $12.7 million in grant and loan funds to expand broadband Internet access in the region.

In an announcement made by Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office Wednesday afternoon, she said the group will receive a nearly $6.4 million loan and a $6.4 million grant to extend broadband service to Jackson, Lakefield, Windom, Round Lake, Bingham Lake, Brewster, Wilder, Heron Lake and Okabena. The funds were awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“Broadband, in general, has been one of my top priorities in the stimulus (program),” said Klobuchar late Wednesday. “Windom has been a leader in this, but to make it really work you have to hook up with the surrounding area.”

Klobuchar said she met with leaders of the broadband group a few months ago to discuss the need for better service in the communities.

“I’m very glad that this has worked out,” she said. “As a country, we have ensured that every American has access to telephone service and electricity — we must now do the same for broadband Internet access.”

The grant and loan combination, along with an $88,000 private investment, will provide high-speed Internet, voice and cable television to the participating communities.

Klobuchar said affordable, high-speed Internet access is needed in rural communities to keep them thriving.

“I’ve always believed that kids that grow up in Greater Minnesota should be able to live and work in Greater Minnesota,” she added. “We will not be able to build jobs in rural Minnesota if we can’t compete on the Internet with countries like India and China. We need to make sure we have the technology spread to our rural areas.”

Jackson Mayor Mitch Jasper was “walking on water” after hearing the news of the grant and loan Wednesday afternoon. It was the second time that day he’d received great news about his community. Wednesday morning, a report issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute ranked Jackson County as the healthiest county in Minnesota.

“We’re going to have the best Internet service available in the world,” said Jasper. “We already have the best lifestyle in the world.”

Nearly two years ago, Jasper and representatives of the nine communities in the broadband group began meeting with Windomnet in Windom to bring fiber-optic cable to the rural communities. He called Windomnet the shining star of how a company can provide broadband access to small communities.

“We were the poster child in this broadband project, and with that, the residents of Jackson have hit a homerun,” said Jasper. “This is a foundation and a backbone that Jackson is going to be able to use for centuries to come.”

Jasper said Jackson has struggled with service up to this point.

“Most everything (is in) copper, which means slow upload and download,” he said. “The Internet controls commerce and the faster, broader broadband you have, the better your Internet service is. The better the Internet, the better your businesses can succeed.”

It will also be a great benefit to the school districts located in those communities.

While the installation of the broadband technology can’t come soon enough for communities like Jackson, Jasper said, “There’s no doubt in my mind — this project will happen in 2010.”

Jasper praised the Jackson Utility Commission for the work it did, as well as all of the visionaries in the nine communities who gathered together to apply for the funds. He also had kind words for Klobuchar.

“Senator Klobuchar has done an absolute wonderful job — she is a champion and we appreciate everything she has done,” he said.