Ramsey County/City of Saint Paul Community Broadband Summit

I attended a very interesting event yesterday at the James J. Hill Library in St. Paul. The setting was very appropriate for a community discussion on commerce and information. James J. Hill is one of Minnesota’s greatest financial giants – railroad man, banker, agricultural innovator – whose fortune is still benefitting Minnesotans today through the Northwest Area Foundation. The library closed its doors yesterday for the Summit, but was still serving customers through its incredible online collection of business information.

Yesterday’s broadband summit was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; its funds came from the founders of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Knight is extremely supportive of broadband initiatives as it links to information and democracy. Knight focuses on the communities on the 20 plus communities where the Knights owned newspapers.

It was very interesting to hear the Knight staff’s linkage between broadband, information, journalism and democracy. They have a new report “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” The focus is on local information needs for a democratic society. You can find the report here: http://knightcomm.org

St. Paul and Ramsey County are exploring ways to connect public sector entities with a high capacity broadband network. In fact, they are in the final stages of selecting a vendor to move forward on this network that would also include a private sector service provider offering open access network services. They are also inviting other public sector entities into the discussion. But the Summit was not limited to the infrastructure side of the broadband topic. Digital inclusion was an important topic as well.

What are the community challenges? Examples include: county workers stifled by lack of bandwidth and an inability to do their jobs as a result; job applicants who cannot complete online job applications in the time limit set for library computer users; children racing to the library so as to be able to complete their homework. (As someone who works all over the state, this confirms the notion that broadband access is a statewide issue, not limited to the rural corners of the state.

A highlight of the event was to hear about what is happening in Miami/Dade County. Kim Marcelle, executive director of the Miami-Dade Broadband Coalition, talked about their efforts. They have seemingly created a unified initiative that includes strategies on connectivity, education, training, and computers and services for low-income residents. Their I-Net services are priced such that public sector entities receive robust services at affordable prices while still generating profits that fund their digital inclusion initiatives. Some of these include: “Rites of Passage” – a programs that provides computers and free Internet for low-income kids; “Beyond the Bell” – a program that provides customized online learning opportunities for kids that targets their specific needs. Google “elevate Miami” for an overview to a philosophy that links assistance to commitment. I also liked their strategy of sector roundtable discussions to discuss technology trends, connectivity and human resource needs. The most striking statement that came out of their education roundtable was “Kids with access to technology are different than kids without.”

Mayor Chris Coleman talked about St. Paul’s historic role as a transportation hub – for river traffic, for railroads, air and auto – and our need to ensure that we have what we need for Internet infrastructure and services. He stated that broadband is a critical infrastructure tied to the need to have the workforce that can exploit this asset for economic development. He stated that we cannot wait until the economic downturn is over or we will be too far behind those that are acting now.

Rick King, chair of the state broadband task force spoke about their report. I have heard him talk several times about the efforts of the task force and the report. Yesterday, he came up with a new analogy I think emerged as he was thinking about beaches in Miami! In essence, the task force has set the destination of ubiquitous 10 Mb broadband for our sailing ship of Minnesota. In a sail boat, one rarely sails in a straight line to the destination. Winds and currents affect navigation so while the specific route is unknown, the destination is. In light of this, I hope that Rick stays on as captain!

I think that the Summit was an excellent launch for the Ramsey County/City of St. Paul community. The next steps will be critical for keeping the momentum going. The group should heed Miami’s Marcelle challenge to keep all key stakeholders engaged on all broadband elements. Reaching out aggressively, moving forward continuously. Strong leadership will be required. Good luck!!

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