Getting public and private together can be hard when it comes to broadband

The days of big federal stimulus largess for broadband infrastructure projects are over.  A proposal to spend $100 million in state money has been floated, but even it envisions matching the state dollars with other investments from telecommunications providers.

That’s why a report the Blandin Foundation put out today at its Border to Border Broadband conference in St. Paul could be useful. It summarizes 11 small grants Blandin has made over the past seven years to help Minnesota communities figure out the feasibility of building high-speed Internet networks to improve service in their mostly rural, mostly underserved areas. In particular, it talks about partnerships between public entities and private companies, which is getting to be a key part of the broadband discussion.

Noting that every community is different, it says three factors determine how likely success is for the kind of public-private partnerships that are gaining currency:

  • Ability to create a level of trust between a community and the provider
  • Number of current broadband providers
  • Level of interest or support from at least one current provider

These have varied greatly in the communities Blandin has helped and elsewhere. Lac qui Parle County, for example, insisted that the local telephone company, Farmers Mutual, be involved. Monticello went its own way to build a network and invited fierce competition from two private networks. In Cook County, every provider around was pulled in. A common problem, the summary notes, is that existing providers of Internet service often decline to get involved in a project to boost service in an area.

Of course, no matter the level of trust and cooperation, access to money drives most of this. Five of the communities that Blandin helped have built fiber networks but four of those took advantage of federal stimulus money. Red Wing was the one that went ahead anyway.

Blandin’s conference today abounded in examples of the dilemmas rural Minnesota communities face.

“Broadband is probably the single most important issue in our community right now,” said Annandale’s city administrator, Kelly Hinnenkamp. Residents are eager for faster service than the main provider can deliver, she said. So the city is looking for partners it can work with.

On the other hand, Hubbard County has found providers eager to build but has been stymied by shifts in federal rules and the availability of rural broadband money, said David Collins, executive director of the county’s Regional Economic Development Corp.

As Rep. Erin Murphy, House Majority Leader, said at the conference, there is tension between interests of letting the marketplace and private providers drive this and the interests of giving access to sparsely populated areas of the state. The Blandin report is a good introduction to figuring ways to ease that tension.