Minnesota broadband: Why is Mike O’Connor cranky?

Mike O'Connor
Mike O’Connor

Even though he looks like a pleasant enough fellow in the photo, Mike O’Connor can get pretty cranky. As the representative for urban dwellers on the Minnesota Ultra High Speed Task Force, he’s upset that the group was seemingly blindsided by a gubernatorial signoff of Connected Nation as the firm that is mapping the penetration and speed of broadband in Minnesota. Because of that signoff, Connected Nation is now the provider that will gather all the broadband data and craft the proposal to obtain federal stimulus money for broadband build-outs in our state.

As I’ve stayed abreast of Mike’s “Urban Users” blog (which he’s using to keep those of us in the metro area informed of what’s transpiring with the task force), I’ve come to realize he’s one of the only people in a position of influence over Minnesota’s broadband future who actually “gets it” when it comes to how vitally important the upcoming task force decisions are to the future of our state, our country, you and me.

In his blog post, Mike started off with this:

Click HERE to read the letter from the commissioners of DEED and Commerce to the Governor that recommends Connected Nations as the outfit to develop Minnesota’s application for the Federal “State Broadband Data and Development Grant Program” funds that are out there under the stimulus program. The Governor signed off and CN is off to the races.

Wait a minute. Connected Nation is backed by big telecommunications companies like Comcast, Verizon Communications and AT&T. Either the fox is guarding the chicken coop, or it just reeks because the coop is locked up tight.

Why would the governor sign off on this when it’s the task force’s mandate — a task force he appointed people to after the Legislature’s demands — to drive the broadband recommendation to the Legislature? Could it be a way to gather and massage the data so Minnesota can turn down any federal broadband stimulus money?

It’s possible the governor signed off on it because the Federal Communications Commission is driving forward on ‘net neutrality, along with more rules and regulations, as it pertains to broadband competition (see more at the FCC blog/website here) and the cable companies lobbied hard to get him involved in what would be a key state for them to lose.

Perhaps it’s because those incumbent providers, especially the cable companies, want control over both their networks and what runs on them and that they view any public broadband infrastructure or involvement as a precursor to a ‘net-neutral world. In that sort of ‘net-neutral world, where they could no longer control what is delivered over their network, the cable companies would be in great danger of seeing 50 percent or more of their TV revenues evaporate as Internet TV use continues to accelerate (e.g., AppleTV, Hulu, Boxee or others delivering TV programming). No doubt they have a friend in Tim Pawlenty, whose close involvement would ensure the best possible outcome.

Or maybe the key is simply controlling the data about Minnesota broadband penetration — by having a mapping provider put forth optimistic maps showing that “everything is really OK and the current providers are doing just fine for our state … thank you very much, FCC” — so you could be seen as a fiscally conservative, small-government champion who is on top of, and controlling, the dialogue and the positioning of whether Minnesota needs or will accept public money for broadband… which would be a huge positive if you were someone considering a run for the presidency.

Perhaps that’s all a bit harsh. After all, the governor has come out on several occasions paying positive lip service to the importance of broadband — including this 2005 Q&A when he was in Hong Kong answering questions from a forum in St. Cloud (PDF). The governor had this to say in answers to questions about rural broadband in Minnesota: “But for those parts of the state who do not have that access yet and perhaps do not have the economy of scale or financing to do it, we are going to have to perhaps turn to our utility companies and our providers and give them an incentive or give them the nudge, a regulatory nudge, to try to get this access across the whole state”.

“Keep in mind that if you look critically at Minnesota … all but a [small] chunk of it already has broadband access. So we shouldn’t conclude that Greater Minnesota does not have it. There are pockets that need to have service … or the finance incentives or regulatory nudges to get that done. But we also have to be mindful [of] whether the technology is about to change.”

It appears that nearly four years ago the governor had already concluded that Minnesota was pretty well saturated with broadband and there were only “pockets” of non-coverage.

In addition, it appears that the governor’s position is already clear in turning down “shovel ready projects” lined up to receive money slated for broadband.

Somehow, I doubt any nudging will take place under this gubernatorial administration, and I can virtually guarantee that all of this is geared toward gathering enough data to turn down any public money or have a public option for internet infrastructure.

Connected Nation’s Conflict of interest
The Wall Street Journal said this in an article about trouble brewing over the broadband stimulus money:

Before the federal government spends more than $7 billion to expand broadband Internet service in underserved areas, it wants maps that show where the money should go.

But the biggest U.S. provider of broadband coverage maps, Connected Nation Inc., is backed by big telecommunications companies like Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. that potentially stand to benefit from how the Obama administration doles out the money.

As it seeks to provide maps for the federal stimulus program, Connected Nation is coming under fire from officials in its home state of Kentucky, and Internet advocates in Washington leery of its industry ties.

Critics complain it uses unverifiable confidential information from phone and cable companies to draw its maps, and worry Connected Nation will use the maps to steer stimulus funds toward its big corporate sponsors, at the expense of smaller players or poorly served areas.

So perhaps the governor is interested in helping providers obtain federal stimulus monies? I doubt it and would think that his position would instead be ensuring no one else does, especially if that stimulus money was used for publicly funded and owned broadband infrastructure.

In one of his earlier posts about Connected Nation, O’Connor also addressed his suspicions about Connected Nation well before the governor simply approved the firm:

“As you know, from following this blog if nothing else, Connected Nations is “complicated.” They, and their corporate backers, are playing a complex game to a) garner a big piece of stimulus mapping money and b) shape the dialog about broadband availability and rollout. They’re darn slick. My posture is to watch them carefully and be very thorough when evaluating their results. I think that there are real issues of transparency, mapping-methods and control.”

Any way you look at it, having Connected Nation run a critical decision-making dataset stinks and having the governor sign off on it, without an ostensibly neutral task force handling it, highly suspect.

Mike has a call to action in his post so you can send in comments and say, “Hey, wait a minute!”: Send an email to the governor (tim.pawlenty@state.mn.us) and the commissioners (dan.mcelroy@state.mn.us and glenn.wilson@state.mn.us) and tell them:

· Broadband is critical to our state … the entire state.

· That broadband needs to be true high-speed, not just 768kbps.

· ‘Net neutrality is key if you hope to have an environment for innovation vs. incumbent control.

· The task force must be objective and in charge of the data-gathering, and this must be fully out in the open and transparent and have public commentary.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by christopher mitchell on 09/01/2009 - 11:55 am.

    Mike is right to be worried – Pawlenty’s Department of Commerce has already wasted valuable time and money by working with Connected Nation to get a rickety online map that barely works and offers suspect data. Further, the idea that 768k “broadband” is sufficient is absurd and puts our communities at long term risk.

    Our communities need broadband, not companies that treat them like captured territory, holding them hostage with slow speeds and high prices.

  2. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 09/01/2009 - 01:47 pm.

    The need is for fiber-optics running to every house and business. This becomes the universal delivery system for everything–and it is treated the same as the phone companies are today. One business maintains the physical plant and wires, and the content (services available via the fiber-optic network) is opened to competition to all–with content providers all paying the same low “per line” charge to the “wires” company to use their physical distribution system and fiber optic network/wires.

    This network would also allow “work at home employees” to become a reality, thus removing (the demand for) millions of cars from the transit system (because they don’t need to work “in the office” any more). Businesses save money because they need to rent less office space and have fewer work-related injuries.

  3. Submitted by Gary Lee on 09/02/2009 - 09:47 am.

    Most people who work in a technical industry (and I’m one of those) will tell you that the US no longer has the best telecommunications infrastructure, nor is even in the current generation of telecom infrastructure. Connected Nation is one of those technical groups which WILL tell you that we lead the world, things are great, and goll darn it we should continue to rely on our trusted incumbent carriers to provide us with service so those carriers (their bosses) can continue to make money providing us with a small fraction of the throuput and service levels which have become common in much of the rest of the world. Incumbent carriers with 1980’s and 1990’s technology (and a whole lot of wire on poles and in the ground older than that) are the biggest impediment to moving forward with telecom in the US. That is why countries like South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia have systems years ahead of ours, with throughput and coverage way beyond anything our telecom companies can offer us. There are very high barriers to entry in the telecom business, largely because it requires a great deal of cooperation and support from government regulations giving a particular telecom provider a government mandated monopoly in a service area. Your choices for wired phone, cable TV, DSL, or other service? You’ve got one, the one and only which is authorized to service your area. Is that competition? Nope, no market forces or competition here. Your only choice is buy or not buy. And so long as those same companies control all of the information used to decide on future technologies, don’t be surprised if the answer is to keep on sending the incumbents your money for whatever inferior product they choose to make your only choice.

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