'Computer Commuter' brings internet to rural Minn.

9:23 PM, Mar 10, 2013   |    comments
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BOYD, Minn. - When telephones and electricity first came to Lac qui Parle County, change was transported by wire. But today's new technology is coming into town via Mary Quick and a 17-year-old former hotel shuttle bus.

"It gets the job done," says Quick as she crisscrosses the countryside in the bus dubbed the Computer Commuter.

Quick parks at the end of Boyd's block-long main street and plugs in two cables that will bring the bus's seven work stations to life.

"Hi there," she greets the waiting residents. "How are you Angela?" she asks a regular. They take their seats, back to back, as small town Minnesota rockets onto the World Wide Web.

While city dwellers welcomed high speed internet years ago, many rural communities have lagged behind. Sparse populations just didn't provide the critical mass needed for costly internet investment by private companies.

Enter what's believed to be state's only portal to the information highway that drives into town on one.

"I'm looking for postcards on the internet," proclaims Fred Eckhardt as he scrolls through postcards on EBay. The postcard collector had access to neither a computer nor internet before the Computer Commuter starting coming to Boyd in August of 2010. Now he rarely misses a chance to visit the bus during its weekly visit.

Quick, a former junior high science teacher has seen the impact of the bus first hand. "One woman was talking to her son on Skype, and he was in Australia, and said, 'Mom, it looks like you're on a bus,' and she said, 'I am, I am, I'm on the Computer Commuter.'"

Quick takes the bus on the road three days a week, serving the Lac qui Parle communities of Boyd, Dawson, Bellingham, Madison, Marietta and Nassau. Four of those communities don't have public libraries, so access to computers and internet can be difficult to find.

On a recent stop in Dawson, Ken Harwick looked up antique John Deere tractors on a farm equipment website, while Florence Werner connected with far-away relatives on Facebook. "Never thought I'd be doing anything like this," she said.

At 85-years-old, Werner represents a generation too often left behind by the rapid advance of technology.

"We heard a lot of people say 'I can't take an introduction to computer class, because I don't even know how to turn it on,'" said Pamela Lehmann, executive director of the county's economic development authority.

Lehmann said her organization initially considered locating a computer lab in one community, but ultimately settled on a bus, because we "just couldn't pick" between the towns in the county.

Lehmann purchased the 17-year-old hotel shuttle bus on -- where else -- the internet.
"Yeah," she laughed. "We bought it on Craigslist."

The bus operates on a budget of $60,000 a year, primarily from grants from the TDF Foundation and Southwest Adult Basic Education. The Lac qui Parle EDA is currently seeking $30,000 to continue operations past June.

High speed internet is finally arriving in the county through fiber optics, funded by nearly $10 million in federal stimulus grants and loans. The first users logged on last month.

But Lehmann says the bus is needed more than ever - as a training vehicle. Talk about bridging both the information and generation gaps: at one work station 16-year-old Brooke Franzky taught Werner how to organize her family photos - nearly 70 years separating them.

Quick tells of a woman in her 70s who entered the bus carrying a small object she didn't recognize. It was USB drive containing pictures of her grandchildren in California. "It was wonderful," said Quick. "She started crying because it was giving her that connection."

Yet tears seem to be the exception. Laughter spilling out of a full bus can give the air of a repurposed party bus, as friends gather inside during weekly visits. "What's said in here stays in here," smiles one user.

How fast is the internet in Lac qui Parle County? 55 miles per hour.

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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