Last month Cook County voters had a chance to vote on two issues related to community-sponsored broadband in their areas.
- Shall Cook County impose a sales and use tax of one percent (1%) on all taxable transactions within Cook County to pay for all or a portion of the following projects and associated financing costs: (i) construction and improvement of a countywide high-speed communications infrastructure network; [and two other projections for parking and the Grand Marias Public Library]?
- Shall Cook County construct and equip a new telephone exchange as a part of the construction and improvement of a countywide high-speed communications information network?
The first issue passed with 64.3%; the second didn’t with 55.9%. The second issue didn’t pass because it required a super-majority of 65%. What that means is that the voters supported the construction of a broadband network but that County will not be able to provide telephone service. It’s a blow to community interested in providing broadband because one big seller of a broadband package from a consumer’s perspective is the one-stop-shop triple play offering of voice, video and data. I’m sure it won’t stop the project – but it’s a barrier.
So folks have been asking me why the municipal telecommunications referendum requires a supermajority. Apparently it has required a supermajority since 1915, when the statute was enacted. But the discussion has come up since then; it was the subject of a TISP meeting last February – maybe it need to be addressed or reconsidered by policymakers.
Folks who support the supermajority support it as a safety mechanism for tax payers. Randy Young from the Minnesota Telecom Alliance was kind enough to talk to me about this last week. Starting a company to provide telecommunications service is a risky business and requiring the supermajority requires a community to seriously consider the issue. I remember hearing from one town that having to reach that supermajority percentage was a good way for them to gain momentum and promote their upcoming service. (I’m sorry I don’t remember more details.) As I recall their first referendum didn’t pass – but they rallied and it did pass eventually. Now I suspect that after the first vote they were not supportive of the supermajority – but as I said it helped them focus and create a stronger plan.
Folks who don’t support the supermajority point out that a referendum is not required for publicly owned Internet or television services. It is holding back local government from getting services to their citizens. So in Cook County the voters sent a mixed message, which leaves the County able to move forward – but with one important tool left out of their toolbox. Without permission to provide phone service they will only be able to offer 2/3 of the triple play offering most people seek; that is a handicap in the market. According to the Connected Nations maps and the Broadband Task Force (pg 29), Cook County is one of the most un/underserved counties in Minnesota. Without government intervention, they are unlikely to get service anytime soon.
I can understand the frustration of both sides. With funding being an overwhelming concern, I suspect citizens do not want to see government money spent on projects they don’t support. With broadband coming closer to being a utility, local governments do not want to be held captive to local providers who aren’t providing the services they need. The Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband report alludes to but does not address the referendum (page 68). But maybe it’s time to take a look at it again.