Broadband proposal stirs St. Paul debate


Sometime in the future, Saint Paul might have neighborhood networks that allow people to relay information to their neighbors quickly. Government could deliver services on-line, so that you could attend public meetings in your home. Firemen could be remotely informed of fire alarms and arrive with medical information in hand. Saint Paul could be the “most connected city in the United States”.

These are all parts of the vision laid out in the final report of the Broadband Advisory Committee. This is said to be possible by building a “Community Fiber Network” which would allow internet speeds up to 100 times faster than current high-speed solutions. Such a network, when run by a community chartered non-profit, would be open to everyone in the city through a policy of “Open Access”. Debate on the report has already started.

Andrea Casselton, Director of Technology and Communications for the City of Saint Paul, will discuss the issues and options presented by this report at a public forum on Tuesday, October 9, 5:00-7:00 p.m. at Rondo Library located at University and Dale in Saint Paul. The forum is sponsored by Saint Paul E-Democracy and is open to the public.

“I think Saint Paul needs to promote a policy that can provide higher speeds for the next 20 years and ensures that every person in Saint Paul can take advantage of that resource,” said Mike Wassenaar, the Executive Director of St. Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN.) “So a community fiber network provides a first step for our long term needs.”

City Councilmember Lee Helgen, who initiated discussion on universal broadband in Saint Paul, was even more enthusiastic. “The City of Saint Paul is currently looking to significantly upgrade our existing institutional network to meet the city’s internal data needs. Over the long term, I believe the community fiber network will provide a good foundation for extending high speed broadband services city-wide”

Some are skeptical, however. “While it seems intuitively obvious that more bandwidth is better than less bandwidth, I believe that the community fiber network is focused on solving the wrong problem,” replied Tim Salo, president of an internet technology building company. “In my view, Saint Paul’s most pressing Internet-related need is to extend access to those who currently have none.”

Salo summed it up this way: “If Saint Paul wants to become “America’s Most Connected City”, it must connect those who aren’t.”

Wassenaar doesn’t disagree, but still supports improving the city’s broadband infrastructure. “There’s another compelling reason for the city to figure out a solution in the next five years,” he said, “Recent FCC rulings indicate that using the cable franchise to leverage an institutional network for city data needs will probably not be a viable long-term solution. That means the city has to figure out now how it will serve all citizens for the next 20-25 years.” The city’s current franchise agreement with Comcast, which SPNN uses to broadcast city events, is the main way that the city currently has to reach all the citizens.

What is not mentioned in the report is cost. Minneapolis’ wireless network is certainly much cheaper than a community fiber network. “Since the city needed mobility for public safety needs they went with wireless,” explained Catherine Settanni, a consultant with Minneapolis WiFi provider Digital Access. “There are thousands of families that remain off-line because of both broadband cost and availability in St Paul, and those families might most benefit from internet connectivity.”

The report by the Broadband Advisory Committee does cover the digital divide, and even suggests a few pilot wireless systems in low income neighborhoods. The bulk of it, however, is devoted to the need for a public infrastructure much like building roads that crossed the prairies or locks and dams that opened up new ports. The vision of “the most connected city” stresses the economic opportunities that come from being connected to the global market. “Today, Saint Paul has an opportunity to secure its economic future with the strongest democratizing force in the world today – high capacity connections to the world,” it states.

Salo is not impressed. “Only after we have ensured that citywide wireless broadband services are available should we start worrying about fiber-to-the-home. Saint Paul probably has better uses for $200 – $500 million dollars.”

Catherine Settanni also sees WiFi as a better alternative. “While a super-high bandwidth network based on fiber provides many benefits, especially to business and government users, a broadband wireless network can help address digital inclusion in underserved communities very quickly and affordably. Wireless should be seen as an interim solution.”

In the end, the disagreement on service type is one of emphasis. Even strong backers of a new community fiber network believe that universal access is critical to success. Councilmember Helgen concludes, “In order to remain competitive in the global marketplace, we need to ensure that our entire community is able to access very high speed data services and that we take action to bridge the digital divide.”

Erik Hare is a writer and non-profit consultant living in Saint Paul.

Fiber optic strands image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons,