Now that we’ve cleared those dusty old telegraph laws off our books, it’s time to forge ahead on Minnesota’s telecommunications infrastructure.
In 1915, the Minnesota Legislature passed a new set of laws to address the hot, new technology of the day — the telephone. Legislators of the time certainly tried their best to write the laws to cover the future of telephone service, as well as they could imagine it. Almost 100 years later we know, of course, that our predecessors could not possibly have foreseen the telecommunications system we have today.
As we started the most recent legislative session, though, quite a bit of the 1915 telephone law remained on our statute books. Old laws can linger when they aren’t needed anymore but aren’t getting in anyone’s way, either. This session, under Gov. Mark Dayton’s “Unsession” initiative, the Legislature repealed hundreds of pages of outdated laws, across the full spectrum of state government. As legislators who have worked on telecommunications policy for many years, it is satisfying to us to have cleared out some of the dead wood in our telecommunications law, such as the laws regulating the delivery of telegraph messages.
More than just making some chapters of the statute book easier to read, though, the work done in the “Unsession” provides momentum to efforts to once again overhaul telecommunications regulation for the needs of today and tomorrow. Today’s telecommunications services are vastly different from anything envisioned by our colleagues of a century ago. Even 20 years ago, almost everyone had land-line phone service, only a third had cellphones and very few demanded home Internet service. Today, almost 90 percent of Minnesotans have cellphones, about a third have dropped land-line service altogether and Internet service is as important to most customers as the ability to make phone calls. We have several new options for our phone calls, too, with VoIP, Skype and similar services emerging.
Of all those communication options, only the traditional land-line telephone company is regulated by Minnesota law. Federal telecommunications law adopted in the 1990s took away the states’ ability to handle wireless phone service and Internet-based services under the same laws that apply to traditional phone service. As a result, Minnesota providers of land-line phone service often find themselves at a disadvantage in the phone-service marketplace because they are unable to move as nimbly as their unregulated competitors.
However, those traditional telephone companies are still the owners of substantially all the phone lines, switches, transmission centers and other telecommunications infrastructure in Minnesota. The competitors mentioned earlier (even the wireless companies) must rely upon the phone company’s vast infrastructure to provide most of their services. Ensuring fair access to the telecommunications system built during the monopoly period is as important to today’s consumer as ensuring standard land-line service was to the consumers of 100 years ago.
As today’s telecommunications networks continue to evolve, we recognize that technology will continue to play an important role in Minnesota’s economy. A dynamic, innovative communications infrastructure is crucial to our prosperity, growth and quality of life. Modernizing telecommunications law to keep pace with technological advances and society’s changing needs is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. It is relevant in every corner of our state and it affects every Minnesotan.
Regardless of the outcome of this fall’s elections, we as policymakers must commit to ensuring that our regulatory system keeps up with the technology that Minnesotans use every day.
Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, and Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, are members of the Minnesota House of Representatives.
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