Ultra High Speed Task Force Report Released

Minnesota's Ultra High Speed Broadband Task Force (created by the legislature last year and largely appointed by the Governor) is releasing its report today (the report will soon be available here). I've had a chance to skim it and found it disappointing in some ways but otherwise to be better than what I expected when I learned about the Task Force.

Being in Minnesota, I guess we should just be thankful the Governor did not attempt to make the report a secret as he recently did with other public broadband information. The Task Force was remarkably open as it went about its process - something I think we can attribute to Chairman Rick King's seriousness in running the operation and trying to move Minnesota forward.

Unfortunately, the political reality of such a task force is that many private interests have to be represented. So the irony of having a Task Force to study why the private sector has failed to invest in the broadband Minnesota needs is that those who have failed to invest get to make demands or refuse to sign off on the report. This is how Task Force's typically devolve into a colossal waste of time. My observation is that while this Task Force seemed headed in that direction, in did not get there.

While the report sets decent targets for future levels of service, it is relatively silent about how to get there. There is some talk of local governments "partnering" with the private sector to aggregate demand (meaning, collect customers for the companies) but when the local governments partner in other ways (say, to build a modern network) they get sued as did Monticello. Thus the report is rather timid in its suggestions of what kind of public-private partnerships should be pursued - we are left to believe that the best partnerships are those where the public sector does the work and the private sector collects most of the benefits.

The report is silent on the role of municipalities directly building their own networks although Chairman King is reported to have said that some on the committee had doubts about the abilities of local governments to run these in the long term. Surveying the landscape, I have to wonder about the ability of private companies to run these networks over any term! Consider the bankruptcies of Charter, FairPoint, and others or the fact that the U.S. continues falling behind other nations in broadband rankings as those countries increasingly rely on the public sector to build this essential infrastructure. Add to this the fact that private companies said the same about muni electric companies one hundred years ago and they continue providing the most reliable and affordable power in North America.

So to wrap up, we needed a Task Force to study what Minnesota broadband needs are due to our realization that the private sector was doing a poor job of supplying it. We put many of those responsible for failing into the position of deciding the best way to move forward. They have now told us that we need to give them public aid from tax cuts or by doing their marketing work for them. We should not be surprised at the recommendations from this group any more than we would be surprised at a lion biting someone who jumps into her cage. It is their nature.

The private sector does a fair job of getting broadband to most of Edina, Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and other dense areas. There is no incentive for them to invest in modern networks in rural areas. If we are going to have to pay for these networks one way or another, we should own them in order to ensure they serve community interests and not Wall Street or shareholders who only think about Minnesota when they make fun of our accents and spend the money we send them via overcharges for lousy service.