Gov. Dayton backs broadband spending

Without putting a dollar figure out, Gov. Mark Dayton this week said for the first time he would support spending state money on broadband infrastructure this year.

If the idea gets support from the Legislature, it will open up an interesting process to determine who gets the money.

“I have stressed that we need to start modestly and prove the effectiveness” of broadband spending, Dayton said at a press conference Tuesday. “The goal of having border-to-border cell phone and high-speed internet coverage is something I said during the campaign. I have believed all along it is important to do.”

A governor’s task force in January recommended spending $100 million on projects around the state, matching money coming from other local, public or private sources.

The task force concluded that making broadband ubiquitous in Minnesota could take as much as $3.2 billion if you’re counting speeds adequate to achieve state goals — 10 megabits per second download and 5 megabits per second upload.

Legislation in the House would spend $25 million. The Senate has approved no spending on broadband projects. So the matter goes to a conference committee.

As usual, the details are important, and there is an interesting distinction in the legislation at this point.

Language in the House supplemental budget bill (see Article 4) would direct the commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development to give priority to  projects in “unserved” areas and says he “may give priority” to projects in “underserved” areas.

Not to get too deep into the weeds, but an “underserved” area lacks wired service (mobile doesn’t count) at speeds the state says everybody should have by next year. At last count, that was just under 30 percent of all households, almost all of them rural.

An “unserved” area lacks wired service even at the slower speeds the Federal Communications Commission defines as broadband — 4 megabits download and 1 megabit upload.  By that definition, fewer than 10 percent of Minnesota households have no broadband access.

(To oversimplify, the slower, federal definition would let you use email, share small to medium files and stream music, but if you want to stream much video or share big files you need the speed envisioned in the state goal. )

In theory, it seems to me, this hierarchy of priorities could matter if a community were trying to get state money to establish fast Internet access in an area already served at slower speeds by Frontier or Mediacom or another provider residents were dissatisfied with. (And there are plenty of places around the state like that. See Annandale.)

But a DEED spokeswoman said the new Office of Broadband Development was working hard to focus on the best projects and those included areas that you would consider underserved, not only unserved.

That, of course, leaves me with this question: Why bother to make the distinction?