A Call to Fiber

For those of you who follow community broadband issues, you may be aware that a week ago President Obama made a stop in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to tout that city’s municipal broadband network. As the President noted:

Today, I’m in Cedar Falls to talk about how we can give more communities access to faster, cheaper broadband so they can succeed in the digital economy. And I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know — today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. This isn’t just about making it easier to stream Netflix or scroll through your Facebook newsfeed –although that’s fun, and it is frustrating if you’re waiting for a long time before the thing finally comes up. This is about helping local businesses grow and prosper and compete in a global economy. It’s about giving the entrepreneur, the small businessperson on Main Street a chance to compete with the folks out in Silicon Valley, or across the globe. It’s about helping a student access the online courses and employment opportunities that can help her pursue her dreams.

Cedar Falls started investing in broadband about twenty years ago and is now Iowa’s first city to offer gigabit service. It’s also ranked by Google as the best city for e-commerce in Iowa. Thanks to the work of our resident expert Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we also know about the successes of gigabit cities like Chattanooga, TN and Lafayette, LA where visionary investments in fiber networks have led to innovation, capital investment, and job creation—and closer to home, how Scott County built a fiber loop that provides connectivity for all the schools and public institutions in the county at significantly reduced costs as well as a means to generate revenue to cover operating costs from private companies that lease the fiber.

Unfortunately, here in St. Paul, we have no plans for a fiber network—and no strategy even for creating ‘dig once” polices that would ensure that any necessary conduit or fiber is put in place whenever the ground is opened up as part of a road or bridge construction project, an incredibly short-sighted approach given that an estimated 80% of the cost for installing fiber is in the trench work.

But it’s not just the city that has been shortsighted. Ramsey County recently contracted with Comcast to provide a leased network for county facilities rather than explore the development of a fiber network that might have served as a starting point for a larger community-owned network, and the school district, having decided to invest in ipads for every student, continues to struggle with bandwidth issues while paying millions to Century Link for leased internet services—rather than looking for ways to partner with the city and county so that the money could go instead to owning the internet infrastructure and thus not being at the mercy of one or two monopoly providers.

Eight years ago a task force composed of citizens and representatives from the city, county, school district, and local organizations, issued a forward-thinking report on broadband in St. Paul that concluded, among other things, that “affordable, ubiquitous broadband is critical for securing Saint Paul’s economic future and will serve as a differentiator from other cities. The critical nature of this infrastructure dictates that the City must control its own digital destiny through public control, by establishing an open, ubiquitous foundation for connectivity and collaboration.”

As most folks are aware, St. Paul has done almost nothing (since the report’s release) to become “America’s Most Connected City,” yet will spend nearly $150 million combined on projects like the Saints ballpark, the Penfield, and the Palace Theater renovation. So the question remains whether St. Paul will attempt to control its own destiny and become a city that might serve as a hub for high tech industry—or watch as other cities make the strategic investments that attract the start-ups and entrepreneurs who will create the cutting-edge jobs that lead to expanded investment, ancillary job creation, and growth in the property tax base.

While all of us lead busy lives, I think we’re at a crucial point in time where the community can provide the impetus lacking at City Hall to influence the upcoming city council and school board races and put community broadband back in the spotlight. Not only does a fiber network offer enormous potential for business applications and cost saving for public institutions, it’s a genuine opportunity to provide equity to the many residents who do not have affordable access to the information superhighway for distance learning, job searches, following a child’s progress in school, etc.

I don’t know whether there’s enough community interest to support a full-fledged broadband campaign, but it’s time to find out. Will you join me?