Op-Ed: Minnesota over-reaches on new broadband standards

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Posted: Jun 23, 2017 1:04 PM

In a quest to boost the state’s broadband coverage, Minnesota has overstepped by reaching for too-high standards that may actually hurt rural broadband expansion.

The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband has set ambitious goals for high-speed internet coverage in Minnesota following near-successful implementation of the previous standard. That initial goal of wireline download speeds of 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of 5 mbps by 2015 was achieved for 90 percent of residents, 98 percent if you count wireless services.

Now, by 2022, the task force would like to see all Minnesota residents able to access speeds of 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload, the current standard set by the Federal Communications Commission for broadband.

But the wrinkle is the task force’s stretch goal of 100 mbps download and 20 mbps upload by 2026 has become the de facto standard when it comes to state broadband funding. In fact, a member of that task force who wished to speak only on background said there likely would have been more pushback on that stretch goal if committee members had realized lawmakers would tie grant funds to that number.

The state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program not only considers an area receiving less than 100 mbps/20 mbps as underserved, it absurdly deems an area receiving less than 25 mbps/3 mbps as unserved.

To quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The Minnesota Legislature allocated $20 million to that grant program during the 2017 session, down from $35 million the previous year, although some pushed for an increase to $50 million per year – including Gov. Mark Dayton, who wanted to spend 20 percent of his supplemental budget plan on broadband. Recipients can get up to 50 percent of project development costs, with a maximum award of $5 million.

Raising the standards for the grant program in theory helps push Minnesota toward its stretch goal, but in some ways it’s actually having the opposite effect. That’s because some areas that have sufficient internet speeds that wouldn’t be grant eligible if the standards were lower can now get money under the program. That means applicants in rural areas that are truly unserved or underserved now have more competition for the grants.

“Some of us felt broadband grants should be targeted first to unserved areas,” said the task force member. “I don’t think you can reasonably say that someone who is getting 50 megabits per second is underserved.”

Annette Meeks, founder and CEO of Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, which advocates for free-market principles, calls the state’s broadband standards “a moving target.”

“As more and more communities have access to higher speed internet service, they continue to raise the bar on what was should consider ‘acceptable,’ meaning that there is a never-ending appetite for higher speeds and more government spending on broadband infrastructure,” she said.

Despite the FCC increasing the broadband standard from 10 mbps to 25 mbps in 2015, a user can comfortably stream video for less than the old standard. While more data-hogging devices means faster speeds will continue to be integral to internet usage, Minnesota jumped the gun by setting a standard four times that of the federal bureaucracy. And while state broadband spending surprisingly decreased this year, look for a movement to boost it again to better meet that new higher speed standard.

It would take an estimated $3 billion to achieve Dayton’s 2010 campaign pledge of border-to-border broadband, but private providers are quickly working to implement new technologies such as 5G wireless, white-space channels and satellite internet to help close that gap. The state would be wise to lower its speed standards to FCC levels so it can focus on funding high-speed internet projects in locations that are truly underserved.