The gubernatorial candidate branding himself as the pro-business choice in the race failed to check in with firms around the state before ridiculing next-generation high-speed Internet service this week.
Just hours after Republican Tom Emmer derisively dismissed it as "ultraspeedy broadband" at a Tuesday debate, an audience across town at the University of Minnesota heard economic development and business officials plead for leadership on the issue and greater investment to expand high-speed Internet service in the state.
The 2010 Minnesota Broadband Summit, convened and moderated by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a leading broadband advocate in Congress, featured Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. But the most compelling testimony came from Minnesota business leaders, who spoke passionately about high-speed broadband fueling the growth needed to keep the state's economic engine humming far into the future.
Pamela Lehmann, executive director for the Lac qui Parle County Economic Development Authority, made it clear that high-speed broadband is one of the best hopes to revitalize rural areas like hers -- allowing them to attract and retain both businesses and employees who telecommute. Thomson Reuters executive Rick King, who led the state's Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force, underscored broadband's attractiveness to employers large and small and then offered intriguing possibilities on how it could save schools money and direct more dollars into classrooms.
But it was the owner of an iconic North Shore small business who spoke most forcefully about the need to act. Bruce Kerfoot, who runs the Gunflint Lodge north of Grand Marais, voiced his fear that clunky connections over "50-year-old wires" put him at a competitive disadvantage. Inadequate and unreliable service causes delays in processing credit cards, he said. It slows his ability to get guests a fishing license. It makes it onerous for foreign guests to book an online reservation.
Kerfoot correctly said the same concerted effort that made rural electrification and the interstate highway system possible is needed to bring true high-speed broadband to all areas. "It really is of that same significance and magnitude,'' he said.
That's why Emmer's laissez-faire attitude toward broadband availability -- reiterated at a Wednesday debate on infrastructure -- is so alarming in this watershed governor's race. Job growth isn't going to happen without this technological foundation, a fact backed up by academic research and real-world examples such as Bristol, Va., where fiber-optic cable's availability helped spur two firms to hire 700 people.
And yet, the United States is falling further behind in broadband penetration, speed and price, ranking 12th or 15th, depending on the measurement among the 30 developed nations. Kerfoot and other business leaders understand that national and state leadership is essential -- now -- to meld the public-private partnerships needed for the giant task of making high-speed connections widespread.
So far, only Independence Party candidate Tom Horner has truly made broadband a high priority in his campaign. Horner has called for strengthening the state's "broadband backbone." Democrat Mark Dayton has expressed support but needs a stronger emphasis. At a minimum, Emmer needs to stop dissing broadband. Doing so undermines his credibility on business issues and does a disservice to business leaders working so hard to wire Minnesota for the future.