Border to Border Broadband in Minnesota

Minnesota's Governor Dayton has already done more for expanding broadband access in Minnesota than predecessor Pawlenty who took the "stay quiet and hope for the best" approach to expanding access in our state.

After being prodded by the legislature (including now-Lieutenant Governor Prettner-Solon) Governor Pawlenty appointed an industry-heavy "Ultra High Speed" Broadband Task Force that exceeded the expectations of many, including myself, with its report [pdf]. I give a lot of credit to a few members, especially "Mikey" and Chairman Rick King of Thomsen Reuters, for that report given the constraints of the environment in which it existed.

Minnesota's Legislature and Governor Pawlenty then created some goals for 2015 and generally ceased any work on ensuring Minnesota could meet the goals. However, some departments (like the Department of Commerce) are using that language to prod broadband providers to consider what steps they can take to get us closer. Despite my frustration, I want to recognize those who are doing all they can to expand access to this essential infrastructure.

Fast forward to this week, when Governor Dayton announced a new Task Force that is supposed to really do things (as opposed to the more common Task Force approach of creating the appearance of doing things).

I am heartened by many of the appointees. There are some terrific people, especially some terrific women who are too often under-represented in technology) that will work very hard to bring real broadband to the Minnesotans that either need their first option or a better option.

And they have their work cut out for them. The state has few options to compel investment from a private sector that sees little reason to invest in an industry with so little competition (St Paul has one high-speed provider: Comcast, and one slower, cheaper alternative - CenturyLink).

For instance, rural Kanabec County took the Ultra High Speed Task Force's recommendation and asked its incumbent to partner in providing better broadband. That went over about the same as every other community that has sought a partnership with a big out-of-state incumbent provider. At least CenturyLink did respond, not all incumbent providers have the grace to do so:

Kanabec County Logo

“After receiving your letter I requested that my management team report back to me on the costs associated with your request for a minimum 10 MB speed to every home and business within the county. For proprietary reasons I’m unable to share with you the estimated costs of meeting this goal in Kanabec County.”

The letter continued, “However, I can tell you that it represents many millions of dollars at a significant cost per household or business passed that under current business models do not generate a return on the investment.”

The Task Force will hear strong voices from within and without its members calling on it to reduce government barriers to private sector investment, whether by gutting local authority over rights-of-way or other means. I encourage it to tell the state to first, get out of the way of communities that want to build their own networks.

Any community that has the willingness to invest in itself should have that right. There is no reason for the state to prefer that massive out-of-state companies with poor track records in Minnesota build networks rather than the communities themselves. The community has a much greater incentive to invest today and tomorrow in modern technologies. Whereas private companies are looking for handouts to serve places like Sibley County, Sibley County is just looking for the state to get out of the way.

Requiring a 65% referendum for a community to build its own network is ludicrous -- and it is Minnesota law. We are the only state in the nation with a supermajority requirement for a community to build essential infrastructure. I just wrote about Longmont, where their massively successful referendum campaign got 60% of the vote -- a loser in Minnesota. Despite absolutely no support from any local leaders, Comcast was able to get 40% support by simply outspending the grassroots community broadband movement $300,000 to $5,000.

Removing this barrier to local authority for community broadband will not bring border to border broadband -- many communities simply do not want to take on the responsibility of building a next-generation networks -- but it will certainly bring us closer, and it will bring much better networks to those communities that are willing to step up and invest in themselves.

Photo by Jackanapes, used under creative commons license.