Dayton creates new broadband task force, promises action this time

Gov. Mark Dayton says he’s re-creating a broadband task force for Minnesota. He wants it to report on the state’s needs by the end of the year but, more importantly, come up with a set of recommendations for improvement a month later.

“Everything is on the table,” from legal changes to money, says Commerce Department Commissioner Mike Rothman. “The real goal is to state concrete action items.”

Task force members will look at the federal money that has come into the state for broadband expansion, what communities are doing without federal money, how state law affects those efforts and more, he said.

“The administration is committed to moving forward and working with Minnesotans to make sure we have the infrastructure.”

Nominations are open, and the 15 members will be named by October, Rothman said, including representatives of rural Minnesota communities, consumers, health care providers, librarians, employers and Internet providers.

In addition to the task force, the Commerce Department will create a broadband development office and will lead an inter-agency effort to coordinate state policies.

The background:

In 2008, Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed the Ultra High Speed Broadband Task Force. The group spent a year and a half determining what the state needed to do to be competitive in the information era.

In 2010, the Legislature took that group’s recommendations and pretty much put them into law. Specifically, it enacted goals for 2015 — every resident should have truly high speed Internet access available and Minnesota should be in the top five states nationally for access. But lawmakers appropriated no money and directed no path to reach the goals.

Later in 2010, the Pawlenty administration appointed another task force (the original disbanded) to track progress. It issued a report in December (suffice it to say the state isn’t close to being in the top five) and vanished from the scene as a new governor took office.

There was some unhappiness over the makeup of last year’s task force. Some thought there wasn’t enough rural representation and some thought it was overly freighted with representatives of big providers like Frontier, AT&T and Qwest.

Jack Geller, director of the federal Economic Development Administration center at the University of Minnesota, Crookston and a member of the original task force, said, however, his biggest concern has been the lack of willingness to think about policy changes or using public resources to get to the state goals.

To be sure, things have been happening on the broadband front. Providers have improved speeds and committed to spending money, communities are exploring building fiber networks, the federal government is dropping more than $200 million in stimulus money into Minnesota to help. There’s a mantra among economic development folks that high-speed Internet access is a basic necessity for communities to function.

But since the original task force ended its work, there hasn’t been an entity really pounding the drum for what the state should do next if it wants to achieve its goals. Rothman insisted that will be the role of this effort.

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