St Paul could use COVID money for better broadband

MinnPost posts an idea from columnist Bill Lindeke…

In normal times, especially given the 2020 COVID budget crunch, cities would be hamstrung when it comes to doing anything about this problem. But these are not normal times. This month, cities across the country are getting a huge one-time influx of money, thanks to Joe Biden, congressional Democrats, and the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

In a city like St. Paul, it amounts to $187 million, and it’s targeted for COVID-related assistance and a list of infrastructure types that, critically, includes broadband.

How does St Paul Compare to Minneapolis?

St. Paul grants companies permission to provide internet access within the city every few years — the current franchisees are Comcast and Centurylink —  and that negotiation provides an opportunity to leverage benefits for people. For example, both of the current providers are supposed to provide a small income-based discount for people who qualify. (In practice, this can be a difficult application and is not always applicable.)

One of the key reasons that Minneapolis’ broadband network is so much better than St. Paul’s is that it has a decade-old partnership with US Internet (USI), a Minnetonka-based company. Years ago, the city teamed up to fund an admittedly spotty municipal wireless service network. But that partnership allowed USI to invest in fiber optic broadband throughout much of south Minneapolis. That in turn allowed the city’s fiber service to be both faster and more affordable than the larger national providers.

Ask around yourself. Pretty much without exception, any USI fiber customer gushes accolades about their broadband service, which reaches speeds of 300 megabits per second (at minimum). By far the biggest complaint about USI is that it’s not available everywhere. Moving from a Minneapolis neighborhood with USI fiber to a part of town without it amounts to losing a cherished pet, and I’m convinced there are people who decide where to live based on their fiber service availability.

Maybe St Paul could improve on the Minneapolis model…

Chris Mitchell would like St. Paul to use some of its ARP money to copy and improve this model, perhaps leasing a new network to the company. Or alternately, the city could build the fiber network itself, representing something of a moonshot for a municipality that only recently began organizing trash collection.

Either way, there are a lot of options for how to leverage the funding, and it could do wonders for digital equity in St. Paul’s poorest communities. Crucially, they could use COVID money to focus on the city’s poorest neighborhoods first.

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