BEMIDJI -- State government officials took suggestions Monday from those in Bemidji interested in getting better broadband Internet access to rural areas as lawmakers prepare for possible legislation intended to help fix the problem.
An information-gathering tour of Minnesota cities conducted by Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL- Red Wing, had its first stop Monday with a meeting at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation in downtown Bemidji. Topics of discussion included the new Office of Broadband Development being created at the state Capitol, the especially wide access gap on local American Indian reservations and methods to motivate telecom companies to provide more broadband access.
Several attendees acknowledged that one of the main hurdles to better access is the lack of financial viability for telecom companies to do so. Nancy Vyskocil, president of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, described a vicious cycle where perceived lack of consumer demand scares off telecom companies from installing lines to rural areas... but demand is suppressed because companies don't want to install lines.
"There is nothing that's going to compel most carriers to come in and do this service because.. they can't recover their costs, much less carry a profit," she said. "It gets be a real cycle: that there is no demand for it, because there's no hope of getting it, and there's no hope of getting it because there's no demand for it."
Vyskocil said that the two legislative options available to encourage telecom companies to come in are "carrots" -- financial incentives -- or "sticks" -- regulations compelling the companies to go into rural areas.
"Both have been used in telecommunications in the past," she said. "Those concepts have not moved to broadband yet. And really, are we not to the point where this has to become part of the conversation?"
Kim Nagle from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe cited the example of an $11 million, already-developed plan to bring broadband to the majority of residents within the reservation that just needed funding to be implemented. Even though a relatively small number of people would use the lines, she said, the economic benefits would be huge.
"You have resorts within those areas, you have small manufacturing operations, you have the tribally owned businesses, you have students that can't get access to education," she said. "You start adding that up and those population numbers suddenly don't matter."
Schmit talked about the Office of Broadband Development, which is being created in part to help inform the state government as they create potential broadband legislation. Following the meeting, Schmit said the new agency would likely have two main employees, including the director, as well as additional employees from other agencies to be attached to the office. A director will be named by the end of this year following an open application process, he said.
"For all practical purposes, the office will begin when that director is named," he said.