Published in the Star Tribune
February 5, 2007
The recent news story about the city of St. Paul considering a fiber-optic broadband network caught my attention.
A robust fiber network in Minnesota is something I believe is crucial to our state's economic viability and long-term competitiveness. The subhead on the story summed it up perfectly: "It's a costlier option, but city officials think a Wi-Fi network won't be enough in the future."
Maybe to prepare for the future we should think about the past.
When I was a boy, my grandmother told me about a time long before my birth, when most homes did not have electricity. She recalled how that amazing service slowly transformed whole communities, cities and eventually our country by making it fast, easy and relatively cheap to heat and light homes and businesses. It wasn't too many years before nearly every home and building had access to electricity. But the cities that got on board the first, such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and New York, gained the biggest competitive edge.
Today, the new technology is fiber-based broadband networks that can transmit information at the speed of light. Do not confuse fiber-based networks with phone, cable or DSL lines.
Fiber-based networks are infinitely superior: They're far faster -- about 10 times faster than most office Internet connections and about 100 times faster than most home Internet connections. And they offer huge capacity.
And the most amazing news of all? Private companies and forward-thinking municipalities in Minnesota and elsewhere already have laid multiple loops of fiber in anticipation of this next chapter in the information-age revolution.
"Local phone companies, electric companies, municipalities and water utilities dug up city streets to put fiber in cities and towns," according to an article in CNET. "And because they never wanted to dig up the ground again, they jammed the conduits with thousands more strands of fiber than were needed."
So why aren't we all enjoying the phenomenal benefits of a fiber-based information autobahn?
When the Internet boom went bust in 2000, companies and municipalities decided to put on the brakes before finishing the job. Ironically, the fiber-based autobahn already had been essentially built; only the metaphorical on-and-off ramps remained to be laid.
The CNET article says an estimated 70 percent of fiber-optic lines are not in use. Minnesota and the rest of the country are sitting on a massive opportunity to improve our productivity by simply investing the remaining amount needed to get fiber-optic broadband to go the last mile -- into homes and businesses.
Minnesota has long been regarded as a savvy business state and our governor certainly seems to understand the value of global competitiveness. Indeed, some of our state's larger companies are leasing private fiber-based lines to connect their facilities and workers to the Internet.
That's why I believe developing and funding a statewide fiber broadband strategy should be a top priority in this legislative session. The people of Minnesota issued a clear mandate in the last election: We must invest in the quality of our future. What's more, a large budget surplus makes this the ideal time to commit resources to get the job done.
Still not convinced?
According to Dataquest, the implementation of "true" broadband could increase U.S. gross domestic product by $500 billion a year through new jobs and new technologies. Some cities are wise to this idea. Building codes in Loma Linda, Calif., require fiber connectivity to every home and business. Officials there have figured out that true broadband, which is available only through a fiber-based backbone, will attract companies that work in areas like telemedicine, finance and data-intensive organizations.
Windom, Minn., population 5,000, has invested $12.5 million to provide fiber-based broadband to every home and building that's willing to pay a modest monthly fee. This community has bet the farm that being among the first rural communities to offer a world-class information infrastructure will not only persuade residents and businesses to stay, it will attract new residents and businesses.
In the old days, rivers and railroads were needed to support life and commerce. Today, a robust digital river is required. Unfortunately, relative to other parts of the world, our digital rivers are moving slower every year.
The International Telecommunication Union, which ranks nations based on broadband availability, puts the United States at 16th.
For the record, the official U.S. definition of "broadband" wouldn't be considered fast enough to qualify in some of the countries that are leaving us in the broadband dust. And to add insult to injury, our slower U.S. broadband service costs more. When compared with places such as South Korea, Japan, and France, our cost relative to our speed is higher.
It's time for Minnesota to devise a policy that either:
• Provides incentives for a private company to finish building the fiber network in exchange for a limited monopoly on providing the fee-for-service afterward, or
• Commits the state to finishing the job, with private companies then competing to deliver the service.
Minnesota is poised to be a front-runner in the race into the 21st century, but we must provide an entrance ramp onto the information autobahn to every citizen and business.