The Proper Role of Government in Broadband

I was just reminded of an excellent presentation given by Andrea Casselton back on October 17, 2007, after the Saint Paul Broadband Advisory Committee developed this report. Unfortunately, the city of Saint Paul has not followed through on the fine recommendations of the Committee. As in so many other places, the economic downturn has made public investments more difficult. But not impossible.

Good afternoon, I am Andrea Casselton, the Director of the Office of Technology and Communications for the City of Saint Paul. Thank you for holding this important hearing. On behalf of the City of Saint Paul, I would like to present some thoughts on the role of government in broadband policy.

As part of my role for the City I acted as chair for the Saint Paul Broadband Advisory Committee which met from August 2006 to July 2007. The committee was comprised of 20 representatives from the community, government, a labor union, non-profits, education, and business associations. Some of the representatives on the BAC were also experts in the field of broadband and wireless technology.

Several weeks ago the Committee’s recommendations report was published. My comments borrow heavily from that report.

In my opinion, in order to decide whether there is a role for local and state government in the deployment of broadband in the state of Minnesota, we must first decide if we consider broadband to be infrastructure.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines infrastructure as: “The basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society, such as transportation and communications systems, water and power lines, and public institutions including schools, post offices, and prisons.”

For cities, towns and counties to successfully compete in the global economy they must be connected to the world. From harbors to railroads, from highways to airports, infrastructure has historically enabled the exchange of commerce, information, and people. Whether it is a rural town or a major metropolitan city, to remain economically competitive in the 21st century, they must be connected to a new infrastructure – affordable, high-capacity broadband telecommunications.

Broadband, viewed ever increasingly as a utility, provides this new connection to employment, educational opportunities, accessible healthcare, public safety, retail, commerce, and the world’s information to residents, businesses, government, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations. Furthermore, the availability of affordable, high-capacity broadband is becoming an important factor in where businesses and people choose to locate. And, with the increasing demand for new applications, consumers and businesses are consuming bandwidth at an ever increasing rate.

So if we determine that broadband is one of the “basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society” then I would say yes, government has a role in broadband policy. I am clear that the Saint Paul Broadband Advisory Committee did indeed feel that broadband has become a basic infrastructure.

One of the key roles of government is infrastructure. Whether harbors, railroads, airports or roads, government plays an essential role through the planning, guidance, support, maintenance and construction of infrastructure.

Lets not get bogged down at this point about who should own what. Historically we have chosen a variety of ways to supply infrastructure. Some is owned out-right by states or municipalities, some is provided through franchises, other infrastructure was built through subsidies or even the formation of local cooperatives. Each solution was chosen based on policy decisions and what solution best met that particular need. Local circumstances and choice plays a large part in how infrastructure is implemented.

Saint Paul flag

The ownership question belongs as part of the solution; I would say we are a long-way on the State level from deciding on a solution. Instead I would suggest that we are still on the policy phase. I think that the place to start is the fundamental policy decision that all levels of government have roles in the planning, support and guidance of a broadband infrastructure.

Government’s role is to take into account the public good. Just as government decides where highways, roads and streets go to serve the public good through careful planning, design, implementation and maintenance, the same approach should apply to broadband. To elaborate, government plans and designs the nation’s road infrastructure, frequently overseeing the construction of it by private companies and then manages the finished product. This infrastructure serves the public good, including the delivery and transport of private commerce as well as ensuring that we were able to travel on a series of federal, state, county and local roads to this meeting today in Eagan.

This same approach can be used to ensure that broadband serves the public good. Just as we would not leave the design of our road systems to the trucking industry, because each company has a limited need, and understandably so, therefore government has taken a leading role in the nation’s road infrastructure to ensure that it serves everyone’s needs.

Yet today, the lack of federal and state broadband policy initiatives and guidance has placed the burden of broadband leadership on local governments. As a result, the city and community of Saint Paul has spent the last two years looking at how wireless and wired broadband services can better serve their community. Through this process the Saint Paul Broadband Advisory Committee has determined that affordable, ubiquitous broadband is critical for securing Saint Paul’s economic future

Each community that I have talked to who is looking at broadband issues I get the sense that we are each reinventing the wheel. Local municipalities need help with getting good reliable information, resources for education, having clear authority to act, obtaining funding for studies and expertise, and having a way to connect to each other.

Of course there is the argument that government should stay out of the way when it comes to broadband. Sometimes it is easy to forget how much the private industry benefits when government steps in to provide or facilitate basic infrastructure. Private industry benefits tremendously from our road systems, reliable power infrastructure, clean water, sewer systems and public safety. A robust, ubiquitous high-speed broadband infrastructure will facilitate interactions between businesses, allows private industry to deliver new and innovative services to customers and allows employees to be productive where ever they are at.

In closing I would like to read from the conclusion of Saint Paul’s Broadband Advisory Committee’s report it reads:

“Each evolutionary stage of the world’s economic and social development has been defined by the ability to be connected to the transport network of goods, commerce, information and people. And at each of these stages, government has had an important role in shaping the infrastructure to ensure the connections happen. ”