Sunday, April 17, 2016

Consquences of flawed U.S. telecommuncations infrastructure modernization policy manifest in Minnesota

Complicated Minn. rules help create broadband haves and have-nots - The underground fiber wires that deliver high-speed broadband access have been laid in fits and starts throughout Minnesota, creating a hierarchy of haves and have-nots around a technology that’s increasingly essential to doing business in the modern economy. Thanks to complicated eligibility rules and overlapping private interests, download speeds available in one community or part of a county are often not yet available in directly adjacent areas — or only at absurdly high prices.

Many have compared America's checkerboard, crazy quilt modernization of its telecommunications infrastructure to the deployment of electrical power distribution infrastructure early in the 20th century. But it's not directly comparable because in Minnesota as throughout the nation, it's highly granular with major access disparities between areas in close geographical proximity. By contrast, electrical distribution infrastructure initially served urban areas, leaving entire rural regions -- and not just parts of neighborhoods and streets and roads -- without power. As mentioned in this story, another difference is huge variations in what people pay for modern telecommunications service from one community to another based on the services offered.

The tax dollar tap is about to start flowing more freely. If Dayton and lawmakers can agree on broadband spending this year — a big “if” given the low expectations at the Capitol for the final work product of the politically divided Legislature — then it’s likely to fall somewhere between the $40 million sought by the House GOP and the $100 million that Dayton wants. It could end up as one of the single biggest state expenditures this year.

Even so, it's nowhere near the funding needed to ensure all Minnesotans have access to modern fiber to the premise connections. The situation on the ground in Minnesota repeats in major aspects all over America. Single states simply don't have the funding to adequately address this. It's a national problem that requires serious national funding. 

But there’s not universal agreement about the best way to spend all the broadband money. At the Legislature’s direction, the Office of Broadband has put its emphasis on connecting what it has labeled “unserved” areas. That leaves home and business owners and elected officials in many areas with the official designation of “underserved” wondering how much longer they have to wait to get a piece of the action.

Policymakers have been misled by incumbent legacy telephone and cable companies to define modern telecommunications service based on throughput speed rather that what's truly important -- fiber to the premise infrastructure. Hence, policymakers have found themselves bogged down for at least the past decade playing a variation of "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" when taking on telecommunications modernization. The incumbents love it because it creates complexity and delay that serve their goal of postponing the future.

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