To Improve Minnesota Broadband, Look to Lessons of Electrification

Steve Downer is the Associate Executive Director of the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association, MMUA, and he previously served on the Blandin Foundation Strategy Board. He offered these thoughts on page 4 of the "The Resource" [pdf] from January 2013 and has allowed us to reprint them below.

According to online reports, House Commerce Chairman Joe Atkins has listed his top 10 issues for his Committee in 2013. Included on the list, at No. 4, is Telecommunications and Broadband Law Update. As municipal involvement has been a hot-button topic over the years, this should be of interest to municipal utilities.

The idea of re-writing state telecom law was a priority of the Ventura administration but, even with agreement among various parties that state law was antiquated the discussion never gained much steam, largely because the telecom companies decided the law was just fine after all. Efforts have been made over the years to remove or reduce the super-majority referendum requirement to build a municipal telephone exchange, but have withered in the face of vociferous opposition.

On the other hand, efforts to further restrict municipal provision of broadband service, a concern in recent legislative sessions, have also languished. So, what does Chairman Atkins have in mind?

Perhaps local interests, working through organizations like MMUA, could suggest the state needs to be more open to partnerships and local government projects, if it is ever to reach its broadband goals.

Cities have proven fully capable of providing a full range of telecommunications services over the years. Counties are providing cutting-edge communications services. The Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services project (a consortium of eight cities) shows how ordinary people, working through their local governments, can work together to provide high-quality voice, video and data service at reasonable prices.

Renville Sibley Fiber Project

After much work, a similar project in Renville and Sibley counties has recently been stymied due to concerns over the ability of city-county partnerships to issue bonds. The project itself has been enthusiastically supported by rural and city interests and was well on its way to construction before last-minute legal concerns were voiced.

This is just the type of project the state should be fostering.

Yet, instead of recommendations to clearly allow this type of partnership in state law, it appears there may be efforts to stack the deck against local interests heading into the session.

The Minnesota Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, for example, recently released its Annual Report and Broadband Plan, including recommendations for the 2013 legislative session. The Report, while the result of much good work, bears the traditional hallmarks of large group writing efforts, and tilts toward the input of private interests that comprised the bulk of the members.

The report notes the obvious, saying, the private sector will play the leading role in expanding broadband access (it might as well have said ‘the sky is blue’).

Two sentences later, the report promotes “public-private broadband projects” but makes no specific mention of how to foster such projects.The recommendations that are made generally provide “incentives” (read tax breaks or subsidies) to private companies and doesn’t even mention local government, which has played a leading role in broadband provision in certain locales.

A number of recommendations are made, but a clear and consistent road map is lacking.

Some recommendations prove the point that governmental ‘pork’ is money that is going to somebody else. Current perks have apparently not been enough to ‘incent’ private providers to extend highspeed service in many areas. Yet, in some of these areas locals are more than willing to invest their own money to provide the service if they could just get the lawyers out of the way.

Minnesota Seal

On the other hand, calls for new positions in state government, to untangle the web of available programs, only seem to prove the point that if bureaucracy grows large enough, you will need more of it to make its purposes clear.

Then there is this recommendation, rich in irony: “to coordinate highway construction and broadband deployment projects,” and have the state install conduit that would presumably contain privately owned fiber optic cable.

Does anybody remember Connecting Minnesota? This was a late-90s proposal for MnDOT, in cooperation with a private partner, to lay 2,000 miles of fiber optic cable in interstate highway right-of-ways. Legal battles, largely with US West (now CenturyLink) led to the demise of this public-private initiative.

A perfect example of public-private partnerships exists in the electric utility industry. Despite animosities, largely in the formative years, municipal, investorowned and cooperative utilities jointly invest in capital-intensive projects on a regular basis.

Utilities do this because they recognize the level of capital needed to improve service to their customers, and realize an effective way to raise the needed capital is to partner with others willing to invest, regardless of philosophical differences.

Enacting guidelines to allow similar investment in our broadband infrastructure would similarly benefit citizens of Minnesota.

We are encouraged by Rep. Atkins’s inclusion of telecommunications on his 2013 session “To Do” list and encourage him to recognize the important and effective role municipals can play to help the state reach its 2015 broadband goals.