As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog...
The opportunity for great broadband all across Minnesota – Border to Border – is upon us due to federal funding. The question for us all is “Are we prepared to maximize the long-term value of these pending investments?” Personally, I don’t think so. Instead, I fear that the state will continue to fund seemingly random projects with little regard for a systematic approach to the goal.
When I work with communities – whether tribal governments, counties, economic regions or townships – time is invested in coming to consensus on community vision, and then developing strategies to achieve that vision. Vision and strategy elements might include symmetrical services, affordability, reliability and customer service. Communities are also focused on having at least one provider that is ready to be a great community and economic development partner. I have seen time after time where these compelling visions and smart strategies have resulted in countywide fiber to the home networks that provides a platform for long-term community vitality. Or, at a minimum, a planned approach leading to significant progress towards the vision.
There are many states that are actually taking the lead in broadband planning and development. Recent examples include a 38-county consortium in California that is partnering with Utopia to build a rural open-access fiber network. Vermont is all-in on Communications Union Districts. New Mexico is partnering with community-focused broadband providers on a statewide broadband network (MN already has this through the Aurora network assembled by community-oriented providers). These are great examples of state leadership which we have not seen here in Minnesota. The Governor’s Broadband Task Force Report focuses on almost exclusively on maps and grant details with no regard to vision. Frankly, when I hear about the “Minnesota broadband model”, I am thinking that we have a Model T rather than a state-of-the-art Tesla.
Minnesota has created and relied on an inconsistently funded broadband grant program as its primary broadband development strategy. The approved grants cover the gamut in terms of geographic size and amount, thus leaving pockets of adjacent, unserved residents with no promise of improved service in the future. In the last funding round, projects with projected upload speeds of 20 Mbps were funded which are guaranteed to not meet tomorrow’s needs.
Minnesota’s application to the US Treasury for the Capital Funds has not been made public, but I assume it mirrors the current Border to Border Grant Program. The upcoming BEAD application process represents the last, best chance for Minnesota to develop a broadband vision and strategy that helps Minnesota achieve the vision created through a collaborative process at the 2015 Minnesota Border to Border Conference: “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.” The BEAD application process is a great opportunity for Minnesota to use the BEAD process to update this vision AND develop smart strategies to achieve the vision. Community broadband champions know what’s best for their communities and regions and have great ideas on how to achieve the vision often accumulated through years of effort. Let’s not miss this opportunity!