A curious thing happens in the small Wright County town of Monticello when residents have questions about their Internet service. Instead of calling a corporate customer service center, many contact the mayor.
Monticello is one of a small number of cities across the nation that have undertaken a bold and worthy experiment: offering high-speed Internet -- bundled with phone and cable TV -- in the same way as water or sewer service. FiberNet Monticello, which began rolling out its services within the past year, is a future-forward twist on a municipally provided utility. Residents can also choose to buy a similar package from another company; speeds have increased and prices cut in response to the new competition.
Credit is due the visionary Monticello citizen task force that foresaw how next-generation Internet service is linked to employment growth and undertook the difficult steps to bring it to the community. Unfortunately, FiberNet Monticello's successful birth illustrates key shortcomings elsewhere in the state as businesses, schools, law enforcement and citizens increasingly rely on high-speed Internet. Among the problems:
• The state still has a piecemeal strategy -- one relying too much on individual city or county initiative or luck getting grants -- for making high-speed Internet available across wide swaths of Minnesota.
• An antiquated state law also stands in the way of communities that want to pursue their own version of FiberNet Monticello. With research increasingly demonstrating that high-speed service boosts rural economic development, communities underserved by current providers should not be held back by the unfair 65 percent threshold for popular support the law requires to go forward. A simple majority would suffice.
A legislative task force on ultra high-speed broadband has already done solid legwork in this area, giving state lawmakers and the next governor a running start in tackling this critical technological issue. The task force, which released a report in late 2009, astutely set faster goals for upload and download speeds. It also called for Minnesota to be in the top five states nationally for speed and availability. The state ranked No. 24 in residential broadband availability in 2008, the task force report said.
But there's much more work to be done. The report drew criticism for not setting high enough connection speed goals and for not delving deeply enough into the financial details of making its vision a reality, such as weighing various tax incentives for providers to expand access. While the report does not recommend that cities build their own networks, that's still a topic meriting debate.
So far, broadband speed and access has been a sleeper issue in this year's watershed governor's race. That needs to change. A landmark paper this year by Jed Kolko of the Public Policy Institute of California solidly linked broadband to employment growth, particularly in rural areas where it's needed most. Bristol, Va., is a compelling real-world example of jobs following high-speed networks. The fiber optic cable laid by a utility there played a key role in Northrop Grumman and the consulting firm CGI hiring 700 people in the area.
Too often the link between jobs and Internet speeds goes unrecognized. This is not about surfing faster on the Web; it's about building technological infrastructure for the state's current and future businesses, institutions and entrepreneurs. Last week, Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner fired what should be the opening salvo in a high-profile debate. Horner called for "expanding the state broadband backbone" and recognized the leadership role the next governor needs to provide. That's a good start. As the gubernatorial candidates continue to debate economic development strategies, Minnesotans should demand to hear more about the future of broadband.