The Pioneer Press published this op-ed about Minnesota high speed Internet access and availability on December 3, 2015.
Christopher Mitchell: Competition and community savings
Minnesota has just one more month to achieve its goal of high speed Internet access available to every resident and local business. In 2010, the Legislature set a 2015 goal for universal Internet access at speeds just under the current federal broadband definition. But the state never really committed to anything more than a token effort and will fall far short.
Even for those of us living in metro areas that have comparatively high speed access, we don't have a real choice in providers and most of us lack access to next-generation gigabit speeds.
The big cable and telephone companies excel at restricting competition by manipulating markets, state and federal government policy, and other means. This is why so many local governments across the nation are themselves expanding Internet infrastructure: to ensure local businesses and residents can access affordable next-generation services and create a real choice. We should be encouraging these local approaches.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking more than 450 communities where local governments are expanding choices with direct investments in networks. Just this month, some 50 communities in Colorado and two in Iowa voted to move forward with plans for their own networks or partnerships.
Here in Minnesota, we have seen a variety of successful approaches. Eagan's modest network attracted a data center.
Dakota County has saved itself millions of dollars by placing conduit for fiber in the ground at very low cost as part of other projects. Now it can use that to help local companies to compete with the big cable and telephone companies.
Scott County's fiber network has helped create more than 1,000 jobs and tremendously improved access in area schools. In Sibley County and part of Renville, cities and townships joined together to help launch a new cooperative, RS Fiber, which shows tremendous promise. Cooperatives, which are effectively community-owned as well, offer some of the best connectivity in rural regions of the state.
Some municipal networks have been accused as being failures. For years, cable and telephone companies claimed Windom in southeast Minnesota was a disaster. WindomNet is one of the most advanced networks in the state and has been expanded to serve nearby towns that had been ignored by the big telephone companies.
In our 2014 study All Hands on Deck, we identified more than $400,000 in regional savings from WindomNet every year. In addition, the network helped keep 47 jobs in the community from one employer alone that previously couldn't get the service it needed from the national telephone company serving it. This is a threat to cable and telephone monopolies, not local taxpayers.
With Windom's success, the cable and telephone companies now attack Monticello's municipal FiberNet for not having yet broken even financially. However, that is the not the only metric by which it should be judged.
Ten years ago, Internet access in Monticello was dismal, harming local businesses. They demanded the city take action and the city asked the telephone and cable company to improve their services -- but those companies insisted everything was fine. So Monticello voted by 74 percent to build its own network.
The telephone company sued, costing Monticello millions in lost time despite its prevailing easily in court.
During the case, the telephone company improved its services, and, after Monticello built its own network, the cable company dropped its rates dramatically. The same package that residents in Rochester and Duluth pay $145 per month for was offered for $60 per month guaranteed for two years. Prices in Monticello from all providers are a fraction of what we pay in the metro.
We estimated the aggregate savings in the community at $10 million over the past five years in All Hands on Deck.
Rather than allowing communities to decide locally on the best strategies to improve Internet access, Minnesota discourages them by requiring a supermajority vote before a community can offer telephone service. This requirement particularly harms Greater Minnesota, where mobile phones are far less reliable and telephone service plays a more important public safety role.
We need an "All Hands on Deck" approach to improving Internet access. The state should be lessening barriers to investment, not maintaining them at the behest of large cable and telephone companies. Local government strategies will play an important role in ensuring our communities can thrive in the digital age.
Christopher Mitchell, St. Paul, is director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is on Twitter @communitynets