Jumping on the Municipal Broadband-wagon....again

The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota continues to be at the forefront of the municipal broadband fight currently being waged in city halls across Minnesota. CEO Annette Meeks had a commentary published earlier this week in the Star Tribune regarding the controversy over the president and governor’s request for the construction of additional taxpayer funded broadband networks.

Minnesota has been at the forefront of this battle as several cities around the state have “pursued the impossible dream of developing and maintaining a transparent, affordable, state-of-the-art broadband network that’s a good deal for taxpayers and consumers. The results of these expensive experiments have been an unmitigated disaster for the customers and the taxpayers.” Even so, Governor Dayton and the president are encouraging more local elected officials to gamble with taxpayer funds to develop their own city-owned, municipal broadband networks. This week, Governor Dayton proposed that the state spend $30 million over the next two years to fund additional municipal broadband projects. As such, cities around the state are jumping on the municipal broadband-wagon.

Expanding broadband access is a laudable goal and an important public policy objective. High-speed broadband expands educational opportunities, allows businesses to innovate and communicate, and can help prompt economic development. Unfortunately, while the ostensible purpose of funding municipal broadband may have been to expand access, too often taxpayer funds are used instead to expand government and to “compete” with the public sector. A great example of the genesis of this type of “overbuilding” existing networks also appeared in the Star Tribune this week.

Many municipal broadband systems are constructed because of the myths surrounding existing local service. Last Sunday, the Star Tribune’s feature story was designed to tell the story about the urban/rural economic divide. Make no mistake about it: much of greater Minnesota is in need of greater economic opportunities for their citizens. Yet articles like this over simplify the problems of business development in greater Minnesota; they suggest that broadband is one of the major obstacles holding back ambitious entrepreneurs and a vibrant rural community. It is often stories like this that prompt local elected officials to jump on the municipal broadband-wagon without fully understanding what is currently available via the private sector as well as customer demand for faster Internet service.

Much of the Star Tribune’s focus last Sunday was on a small businessman who relocated his chiropractic business to rural Renville, a community of approximately 1,200 citizens located 100 miles west of the Twin Cities. The businessman profiled in the article complained to the reporter of “the painfully slow local internet connection that travels roughly at the speed of dial-up.”

Yet a quick visit to the City of Renville’s website shows that there are currently at least four private providers of Internet service to the city of Renville. If you go to the state’s website, ConnectMN, there are 29 broadband entities listed as providing broadband service in Renville County. Furthermore, service speeds, according to one of those local providers, is “10 MB” which is “20 times faster than dial up.” It is also interesting to note that the state standard for broadband speeds is 10 MB which is what is currently available in Renville.

The real tragedy is that supporters believe that more municipal broadband will be a panacea to the persistent economic issues in Greater Minnesota. Instead of seeking that silver bullet that municipal broadband supporters believe will be their savior, our state would be well-served to focus on expanding broadband access where none currently exists instead of wasting finite resources on duplicative networks in a misguided attempt to compete with the private sector.

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