Bill Coleman for policymakers – we must invest in broadband

bill rightEarlier this week I was invited to testify before the House Committee on Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance committee, but didn’t get the chance to say what I had prepared. Here is the testimony I prepared and would have delivered.

Good afternoon Chairman Garafalo and members of the committee.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today.

I will quickly address three related topics:

• The difference between broadband goals, broadband standards and the broadband marketplace
• The impact of the CAF2 program on rural places, and
• The need for rural communities to be able ensure their own broadband future.

Regarding goals, standards and the marketplace.

In 2010, the federal government set a 100 Mb goal which is still in place. In comparison, since 2008, the FCC standard for broadband has accelerated from 768k to 25 Mb, a thirty-fold increase in eight years.

The broadband task force is also recommending a 100 Mb by 2026 goal as well as an interim goal of 25/3 by 2022. If the 25/3 goal is adopted, Minnesota would gain notoriety as the only state that has adopted a lower upload speed goal in 2016 than they had in 2010.

In comparison, the marketplace is moving faster than either the federal or state goal. Companies are deploying Gigabit and greater broadband in both the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. This change is enabled by new technology of course, and in the Twin Cities by some level of competition.

In rural Minnesota, cooperatives like Paul Bunyan, CTC and others offer Gigabit speeds. Hiawatha Broadband and Midcontinent do as well. So Gigabit broadband is not just a Google dream – it is a reality. Those communities without Gb services know that they are falling behind in economic competitiveness and quality of life.

The 25 Mb FCC broadband standard is of little use as a current benchmark or goal, especially for state broadband funding. Looking forward, if we were to apply the same growth rate to the FCC standard over the next 8 years as the previous eight, the 2024 FCC standard would be 750 Mb.

CAF2 is a program that will provide band-aid improvements to broadband services in some rural areas, but alone, will not provide a ubiquitous long-term solution. To quote Jason Dale, president of Cooperative Network Services, a collaborative of Minnesota’s Gb providing cooperatives, “these large companies will deploy essentially the same technology as was deployed by broadband cooperatives 15 years ago, probably causing them to fall even further behind the current rate of change.”
While DSL can provide speeds in excess of 25 Mb to homes within a half-mile of the electronics, those living two miles away will see their speeds top out at 10 Mb or worse, depending on the condition of the copper network.

Based on these incumbent providers’ investment track record, the CAF2 program may be these area’s last significant technology upgrade for a generation. Can you imagine the shortcomings of a 10/1 Mb connection in 2022? And areas ineligible for CAF2 may not get any improvements at all.

The right of first refusal concept is comparable to an arranged marriage, a concept almost as old and out-of-date as DSL technology. Many rural Minnesota communities have experienced the reluctance or outright refusal of these incumbents to invest in greater Minnesota over the past decade or longer. Efforts to develop public-private partnerships have been rebuffed before even mildly serious discussions could take place.

Communities must to be able to select their partners based on shared mutual interests and goals. Considerations would include the quality of the planned infrastructure, its long-term economic development potential and the reliability of the partner over the long term.

The ability of a rural community or county to create a partnership with a provider to deploy a world-class, Gb capable network should be encouraged, not prohibited. Monopoly providers delivering inadequate services should not be protected from competition.

A world-class broadband network is defined by more than just speed delivered to a particular location. Communities must ask: Does the network go everywhere and connect everyone? Do we have the networks that tech savvy people in all industries desire and require? Can the local economic developer reach a provider decision-maker while working with prospective economic development prospects? Are those who live in outlying areas – farmers, doctors, entrepreneurs, retirees, tele-workers, students, and vacationers – able to connect to do what they want and need to do to enjoy a vibrant rural lifestyle?

Because those that can’t connect will go elsewhere to live and work. And others will never come. As greater Minnesota works on another significant challenge – to grow and maintain a skilled workforce – those places without broadband are already at a significant disadvantage.

I encourage you to set aspirational broadband goals, like the 100 Mb goal that was adopted by the task force. It would then seem smart to require that all state funds be used only to reach the 100 Mb goal and not the current 25/3 FCC standard. Ensure that state funds are well used and create a long-term platform for rural vitality.

Thank you.

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