Where will a merged CenturyLink put $50 million broadband investment?

Now that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has added its approval to the proposed merger between Qwest and CenturyLink, it’s worth wondering where a promised $50 million or more in broadband infrastructure investment will go.

The two companies, both of which provide parts of Minnesota with phone and Internet service, agreed last fall to spend at least $50 million in the state on broadband, at least a third of that in unserved or underserved areas.

CenturyLink spokeswoman Carrie Amann says it’s too early to know the geography or the technology involved. The deal won’t close for months probably and even then operations won’t combine for a year, she said. Any upgrades the companies are planning right now will continue, and won’t be counted in the $50 million, she said.

The existing CenturyLink operation already has plans for improvement in Aitkin County, for example, she said. In that county, only 42 percent of the households have high-speed access available, according to the ConnectMinnesota report issued last week.

Both companies have been criticized for being slow with broadband investments in outstate Minnesota. That’s a common factor behind community efforts to build their own networks. Investor-owned companies typically respond that they provide service as the market demands it.

It will be interesting to see whether Lake and Sibley counties, for example, see any of the new investment. Both have Qwest or CenturyLink customers, both are contemplating the creation of community-owned fiber optic networks and both are already seeing other investor-owned providers cry foul. It would be unsurprising to see those competitors upgrade their service to retain customers.

In the grand scheme, $50 million spread across the state over five years doesn’t seem like a huge number (somebody correct me if that’s not fair). The federal stimulus program is dropping more than $200 million into Minnesota over three years, for one rough comparison. Sibley County alone is contemplating borrowing $63 million to build a fiber system for it and part of neighboring Renville County.

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