Counterpoint: 'Broadband' and 'boondoggle' don't belong together

  • Article by: BEN FRANSKE
  • Updated: March 17, 2014 - 6:18 PM

Access to Internet infrastructure matters greatly to companies, because — like transportation — its quality can make or break the business.

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Seth Kern, with Lake States Construction, a subcontractor of Lake Connections, readied telephone poles in Two Harbors, Minn., to string stainless-steel strand cables to which fiber-optic cable will be lashed.

Photo: Bruce Bisping • Star Tribune file,

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Just as Charlie Schmidt likes to flip through the paper (as noted in his March 13 counterpoint about broadband), so do I, though in my case it is a skimming of the headlines at StarTribune.com. Having read the original commentary (“Broadband: Our economic imperative,” March 10), I was caught by seeing another headline about the topic, this time with the word “boondoggle.”

Instead of just chalking it up as an article by someone from the “culture of no” who doesn’t see the big picture, I thought I would give it a read. Despite the widely underpublicized success of many public services, Mr. Schmidt is yet another person who doesn’t recognize the value of infrastructure.

While he did a good job of getting in jabs at government programs, he failed to make a compelling case against investing in broadband infrastructure or even to show that he had more than a gut reaction against it. Many of the same arguments used against investing in broadband could have been applied as easily to the original decision to build the U.S. interstate highway system.

There are many parallels between investment in transportation infrastructure and that in broadband infrastructure. While it is true that a more-advanced broadband infrastructure will allow people on the outskirts of Minnesota to “surf Facebook at 10 megabits per second (or greater),” it also is true that a system of public roads allows people to drive to a movie theater. As we all know, a road system has many more substantial uses than driving to a theater; so, too, with broadband infrastructure.

The fact of the matter is that broadband is critical, even for those who have no desire to follow anyone on Twitter. There are numerous sensors, systems and signals we all rely on and interact with daily that utilize broadband connectivity. From ATMs and credit-card transactions to stoplights, road sensors and equipment for weather forecasting, nearly everything is now network-enabled. The reason for this, in one word, is efficiency — something I’m certain Schmidt can appreciate.

Those with experience in logistics understand the tremendous value of locating a business in an area with excellent transportation infrastructure. Placing your business along a major transportation route can offer substantial cost savings and a competitive edge that can be the lifeblood of your company — and not doing so can be its undoing. Thus, companies take the placement of their businesses very seriously.

Likewise, in an information age, access to excellent Internet infrastructure is a business imperative.

If you don’t think that companies are deciding where to locate based on the Internet service available, think again. If you don’t think we have a broadband crisis in Minnesota, think again. Bandwidth costs here are substantially more than in other parts of the country, and most of our bandwidth flows through Chicago, which means we also have less bandwidth redundancy than in other areas of the country.

So far, we have only been talking about the Twin Cities area. The situation in outstate Minnesota is even more bleak. Schmidt’s proposed solution of using a cellular-based hot spot is laughable. In many outstate areas, coverage remains low or nonexistent. Even the signal boosters trumpeted do not solve the underlying problem of limited bandwidth to these towers, due to the expense of getting it there and a poor cellular infrastructure that does not scale well to the many uses of broadband beyond simple Web surfing.

If we as a state are to remain one of the premier places to live, work, learn and do business, it truly is imperative that we leverage the power of the state in improving our broadband problem. If countries such as Latvia, Romania and the Netherlands can achieve average Internet connection speeds of more than 40 megabits per second, and at a much more reasonable price, so can we. A failure to address the growing broadband gap is a critical mistake.

Finally, if you don’t think the state already spends a considerable amount of money on broadband, think again. The state Office of Enterprise Technology and the Department of Transportation have buried fiber-optic network cables throughout the state, and they manage extremely large and diverse networks. It turns out that the Internet is even critical for maintaining those pesky government-funded roads.

 

Ben Franske is a professor of information technology at Inver Hills Community College.

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