Task Force to Debate Whether A Gigabit Per Second is Too Fast for Minnesota

States August 5th, 2008

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Broadband Census Minnesota

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles surveying the state of broadband, and of broadband data, within each of the United States. The complete list is at http://broadbandcensus.com/blog/?p=713. Or visit the BroadbandCensus.com Broadband Wiki. Help build this wiki by making a contribution to BroadbandCensus.com.

August 5 – When it comes to articulating a state broadband policy, many in Minnesota are aiming high – or at least very, very fast.

In April 2008, the Minnesota legislature passed a bill to create an Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force. The bill was signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and, last month, he named 20 of the 26 task force members.

One of the key priorities of the bill is to identify a level of broadband service and connection speeds that will be reasonably needed by the year 2015 in order for Minnesota to compete in the global marketplace of the future.

Chairing the task force will be Rick King, chief operating officer of Thomson Reuters, which has major operations in Eagan, Minn. “Ultra high-speed broadband gives us a competitive edge to build on our technology leadership position and attract great companies and high-paying jobs to our state,” King said in a statement.

And what exactly is “ultra high-speed”? Until June, the Federal Communications defined broadband as 200 kilobits per second (Kbps), although that’s now been raised to 768 Kbps.

Earlier versions of the Minnesota legislation, by contrast, called for a connection speed of one Gigabit per second (Gbps) as a benchmark. That’s the equivalent of 1,000 Megabits per second (Mbps), or 1,000,000 Kbps.

Average downstream speeds in the United States range from 2 Mbps – 6 Mbps for home-based broadband, depending on whether the connections are digital subscriber lines (DSL), cable modems or fiber-optics.

The lofty 1 Gbps goal can be traced to the Blandin Foundation and its broadband initiative, which from 2003 to 2006 articulated its broadband vision to “live at the speed of the light,” or to bring the full capacity of fiber-optic connection to life. The Blandin Foundation is a Grand Rapids, Minn.-based non-profit foundation focused on rural communities.

“Ultra high-speed broadband has arrived,” read the foundation’s March 2006 report. “The question is, ‘When do we want it to arrive in our communities?’ Five years from now? Ten years? Will we play catch up, or act today?”

Others in the state have analogized the fiber-optic information super-highway to the influence of the railroads’ upon Minnesota’s past.

“In 1868, the railroad bypassed Forestville, Minn., and the town died,” wrote Steve Borsch on his blog minnov8.com, about internet innovation in Minnesota.

“My Dad and his cousins tell stories of being kids on weekend holiday in the 1930’s, taken out to the farm to look around and rubbing the store windows so they could peek inside at all the old clothing, canned goods and assorted sundries, all left intact when Thomas locked the store and he and Mary moved to nearby Preston,” wrote Borsh. The railroad had been built through Preston, but not Forestville.

Many of the flashpoints in the debate over broadband within Minnesota have been over speed.

“Certainly Mr. King [the task force chair] is a proponent of a more aggressive broadband policy, but he is practical about this and recognizes some of the constraints that the telcos have,” said Steve Kelley, a former state legislator and senator, who is now senior fellow at a technology center at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.

“The providers and some other folks say, ‘let’s make sure that the capacity follows the demand, rather than the other way around,’” said Kelley.

The Minnesota dynamic is a bit unusual in that there are several smaller companies and municipalities that seek to invest in fiber-optic service, said Kelley. In some cases – as with the town of Monticello, Minn. – these efforts are being challenged by incumbent telecommunications companies.

But in the state, the two dominant providers are Comcast and Qwest. In contrast to Verizon Communicaitons and AT&T, both of which are making major investments in fiber-optics, “Qwest doesn’t have the capacity right now,” said Kelly, “and Comcast isn’t going to pump up the capacity unless it is pushed, in a regulatory/competitive sense.”

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has entered the telecommunications space to defend the efforts of municipalities, such as Monticello, as well as a separate consortium of 11 communities in the northern part of the state that is dubbed the Minnesota Iron Range.

“We are suffering because none of our providers are really investing,” said Chris Mitchell, a research associate at the institute, a non-profit based in Minneapolis and Washington.

In addition to the ultra high-speed task force, the Minnesota legislature this year passed two other broadband-related bills. One calls for the University of Minnesota to study the effects of state-wide video franchising legislation. The other seeks to conduct a comprehensive inventory of internet speeds, technology types and availability within the state by February 1, 2009.

Broadband Census Resources:

Below are public and private resources about broadband information in the state of Minnesota that BroadbandCensus.com has been able to identify.

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