I had been invited to testify yesterday before the House Committee on Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance committee, but didn’t get the chance. Here is the testimony I prepared and would have delivered.
Good Afternoon Chairman Garofalo and members of the committee.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.
My name is Bernadine Joselyn. I am the Director of Public Policy & Engagement for Blandin Foundation, Minnesota’s largest rural-based philanthropy. The Foundation has been invited as technical experts to offer our opinion as to the strengths and weaknesses of proposed legislation under discussion by this committee.
Our mission is to strengthen rural Minnesota communities – a goal I am confident each and every one of you share.
So in a sense I speak to you today as your colleague – as someone who, like you, is dedicated to promoting the economic vitality of Minnesota’s rural communities.
My job at Blandin, and before you today, is to help ensure that rural perspectives are well represented in policy debate that impacts rural, a hat I also wear as a member of the Governor’s Broadband Taskforce.
We’re not the “Broadband Foundation,” and so why, you may ask, has Blandin dedicated so many resources over the past dozen years or so, to rural community broadband.
That’s because we have come to recognize that broadband is critical to everything we care about as a foundation – prosperous rural communities, opportunity for all, and vibrant civic life.
Unfortunately, in Minnesota the rural / urban divide in broadband quality and availability is all too real: 99% of urban areas have access to broadband speeds of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, while only 47% of rural areas, including many tribal areas, have such access.
This state of affairs is hurting Minnesota. Without broadband infrastructure, rural communities cannot compete. Innovation can happen anywhere there is world-class broadband. If we want to preserve a “rural option” in Minnesota – we need border-to-border broadband. All Minnesotans benefit when rural communities are vital and thriving.
So far, we’re not doing very well. In fact, Minnesota did not reach the goals you set for 2015 of border to border access to 10 to 20 Mbps download/5 to 10 Mbps upload.
I know you hear a lot from the telecom industry. By contrast, rural community voices are disaggregated. And while every sector – from education to health care to public safety to business – is better with broadband, it can be challenging for rural broadband advocates to counter the industry’s message that the free market alone will meet community needs.
This year, however, the chorus of need has been reflected in a broadband vision for Minnesota. It reads:
Everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable world-class broadband networks that enable us to survive and thrive in our communities and across the globe.
This vision has been endorsed by dozens and dozens of entities who care about Minnesota communities – including the League of Minnesota Cities, Association of Minnesota Counties, the Association of Minnesota Townships, all of the state’s Regional Economic Development Commissions, MN Rural Education Association, and many many others. Among the 16 individual counties who have adopted this vision are some represented by members of this committee, including Kandiyohi, St. Louis, Yellow Medicine, Lac qui Parle, Redwood, and Sherburne.
To achieve this vision, MN must invest.
The Governor’s broadband task force has estimated that to meet the 2015 goals would require up to $3 billion dollars. Meanwhile, Minnesota has fallen in national rankings of broadband availability and speeds as other states do more to encourage broadband investment. Minnesota can do better.
Rural Minnesota communities are ready with quality fundable projects:
Last year, the Office of Broadband Development received 44 grant applications for a total funding request of $29 million. It was able to award only $11 million in grants, leaving $18 million worth of projects unfunded.
Pretty much everyone agrees the OBD has done an excellent job administering the fund and selecting projects worthy of public investment. I caution you not to overburden the office with onerous new administrative requirements like incumbent right of first refusal. The fund is working well. It’s not broken – it just needs more money.
$100 million dollar fund is not enough to get the job done, but it is a good start.
Before closing, I’d like to say just a few words about Connect America Fund (CAF2) and its impact on Minnesota broadband needs.
Do not fall into the trap of believing that the Connect America Fund (CAF2) dollars can substitute for the investment Minnesota must make.
The CAF2 standard of 10/1 is not world class. It is second class. Not good enough today; definitely not good enough for tomorrow.
The same is true for any proposal allowing public funding of wireless networks at 10/1 upload/download speeds. Public funding should support networks that are scalable for the future.
None of us would not be satisfied with new sewage treatment facilities that do not meet current federal standards; why would we be happy with federally-subsidized networks that don’t meet current broadband standards and fall far short of where technology is going?
It is also important to keep in mind that it is the upload speed that delivers economic development. Download speeds are important for streaming Netflixs; upload speeds are needed to generate economic prosperity. Download speeds are for consumers; upload speeds are what matters for producers and entrepreneurs. My husband runs an internet business from our rural home, and upload is what matters to him.
And finally, also beware of the myth that wireless is good enough. That wireless is the future.
In fact, our broadband future is tied to investment in fixed networks. Fiber is the foundation of all wireless technology. Wireless infrastructure without fiber backbone is like airplanes without airports.
On behalf of Minnesota’s rural communities, I urge you to make the investments necessary for Minnesota to be “above average.” Fund the fund.
Don’t fall for the line that CAF2 is the answer, and neither is wireless without fiber backbone.
Director, Public Policy & Engagement
2022 25/3 (FCC definition)