Should the state bond for broadband?

UPDATE: See addition at the bottom regarding criteria for bonding projects.

If Minnesota wants to move up in the state rankings for broadband access and speeds, it will need more fiber optic cable in the ground. And one way to encourage that without direct infusion of state money is to allow broadband projects to be included in state bonding requests, even if they ultimately are owned by private companies.

That’s one of the thoughts Rick King had this morning when I caught up with him to get his take on Gov. Mark Dayton’s re-creation of a state broadband task force last week.

King, chief technology officer for Thomson Reuters, led the original 18-month study of the state of broadband in Minnesota. That prompted the 2010 Legislature to establish speed and access goals for the state for the year 2015. Dayton’s new task force, to be appointed by October, is supposed to track how well we’re doing and, by the end of January, recommend ways to do better.

One goal is to make high-speed access available to all Minnesotans, and King thinks the state is making progress. Another goal is to move the state into the top five in access and speed. There isn’t much evidence that that is happening.

“To get higher in the rankings is going to require money,” King said.

Here’s a chart of the Top 10 from a Minnesota task force report last December. Minnesota, not on the list, ranked 24th with speeds just below the national average.

broadband - fastest states - 2010.JPG

A direct state infusion to follow on federal stimulus money that state projects have received isn’t politically likely. But treating fiber projects as utilities and using the state’s bonding authority might make sense, he said. Projects could include “last-mile” fiber to people’s homes and businesses or “middle-mile” projects creating the backbone for service. And in some cases, the ultimate owner might be a private Internet provider. That would require a departure from existing law.

So a recommendation to the Legislature to that end might be one thing to look for when evaluating what the task force cranks out once it gets going late this year.

(Disclosure: King serves on the Minnesota Public Radio Board of Trustees.)

UPDATE: Minnesota Management and Budget spokesman Joel Ludwigson says bonding for technology projects can be tricky and, to this point anyway, has depended on the specifics of the project. The state has not bonded for utility-type projects like King was talking about, but might if at least part of it could be considered a capital project.

The bottom line, Ludwigson said, is the constitutional requirement that bonding be limited to land and buildings. That might be a high bar.