Minnesota's new broadband law aims to give every resident access to a high-speed internet connection by 2015, but missing from the law signed last week by Gov. Tim Pawlenty is a way to foot the bill.
The measure passed by lawmakers would extend Internet availability to the approximately 6 percent of Minnesota's homes with little or no current access to the Internet. It also would set a standard for Internet speeds, which vary widely.
LAW SETS HIGH STANDARDS
State officials have set a minimum download speed of 10 megabits per second and a minimum upload speed of 5 megabits per second. That's at least double speeds available for many home Internet users now.
Those speeds allow people at home to visit with their doctor, take a class and talk with classmates and the instructor, and send and receive big pieces of information such as detailed architectural plans, said Rick King, chief technology officer for Thomson Reuters in Eagan.
King, chair of the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force, said the goal would lift Minnesota from 16th among states for access to high speed Internet service.
"It says specifically Minnesota should be in the top five states in the U.S. for broadband speed, top five states for broadband access and the top 15 among countries globally for broadband penetration," King said.
SUPPLYING HIGH-SPEED INTERNET NOT CHEAP
The big cable and phone companies won't lay the fiber-optic lines and put in other expensive hardware needed to supply the service if there aren't enough customers.
That has made it a challenge to find money for what many agree is fast becoming an essential tool.
King said that, as a citizen, he would support a fee on broadband customers to help finance the build-out -- just like the universal service fee that helped bring telephones to rural areas years ago. However, the law does not include a fee.
"If we were to just take the fee off the phone line and say anybody providing broadband service -- be it phone, wireless or cable -- if there was universal service fee fairly among all those providers, I'd be for having it for that purpose," King said.
Christopher Mitchell, a researcher for the Minneapolis based Institute for Local Self Reliance, agreed that a user fee would help build out broadband service around Minnesota.
Mitchell, whose institute has just published a new report titled "Breaking the Broadband Monopoly," also would like to see Minnesota drop a rule that requires cities and counties to get a supermajority of voters to back a plant to build a city or county broadband service.
"For a city or a county to build a network and offer services ... they need to have a 65 percent yes referendum, which means the opponents which are typically cable or telephone companies have to convince or confuse a minority of people to vote against it," Mitchell said.
RURAL MINNESOTANS FACE MORE CHALLENGES
While Minnesota considers how to pay for expanded access, state residents who can afford it are buying faster Internet access on their own.
Ed Bolas, a business man in the western Minnesota community of Starbuck, has a dial-up Internet connection at his home. Bolas is routinely kicked offline because of the long waits for information.
Bolas and his wife, who live in nearby rural Lowry, drive to a coffee shop in Alexandria where there's a high speed connection to catch up on e-mails and other business.
After their rural cooperative phone company recently waived hook-up fees, the couple signed up for $45-a-month high-speed service -- advertised at speeds of up to 1.5 megabits per second.
"We figured out how much we were spending at the coffee shop -- as long as you're there you have a cup of coffee -- and I think our net cost was about $20 a month," Bolas said. "And that we thought we could pay ... rather than what it cost to drive to the coffee shop."
That same phone company offers speeds of 5 megabits per second for $85 a month -- well out of reach for many Minnesotans.
Advocates for expanded Internet service say it's unlikely the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadband, will adopt more consumer-friendly rules to increase access and bring down prices any time soon.
State officials hope to win some of about $8 billion in federal broadband stimulus grants. The first round of winners has already been announced, and a second round will be announced soon.