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Launched in 2014 by journalist Sean Baker, Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Opinion | Rochester should be thrilled about opportunity to improve Internet access

Opinion | Rochester should be thrilled about opportunity to improve Internet access

Against all odds, a private broadband company is rushing in to save Rochester from inadequate Internet access and monopoly providers. Why aren’t local officials more excited?

For years, the city has failed to take action to expand broadband access and encourage competition among providers. Now, seemingly out of the blue, Indiana-based MetroNet has expressed interest in bringing its fiber optic Internet access, voice, and video services to the residents of Rochester. Most people would be thrilled to finally have a real choice in Internet service providers, but the only thing more surprising than MetroNet’s sudden interest in Rochester is the apathy of some city council members.

In Kentucky, the city of Lexington actively attempted to improve connectivity for years before MetroNet began offering services there. At the ceremony announcing MetroNet’s expansion, Lexington’s mayor said, “We are so . . . grateful that a company like this has picked our city.”

Compare that to what Council President Randy Staver had to say after MetroNet applied for a cable franchise in Rochester: “I think we are almost obligated to let them in as long as they abide by the rules in the market.”

It’s hard to understand why he couldn’t muster a little more enthusiasm. MetroNet will bring next generation connectivity capable of gigabit speeds to the city, cementing Rochester’s status as a “Best Place to Live” and hotbed of innovation. Access to affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet is increasingly necessary for education, employment, and even healthcare. It also encourages economic growth, diversification, and resiliency.

Most importantly, MetroNet will bring competition to Rochester’s broadband market, which is sorely lacking despite misleading federal statistics and claims otherwise.

In 2015, council member Ed Hruska asserted, “We have 19 local broadband providers and of those, we have two cable providers, six DSL providers, four fiber providers, three fixed wireless providers and four mobile providers.” 

However, research published by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance demonstrates that Rochester actually has far fewer options for Internet service, especially for the faster speeds quickly becoming the new baseline. Broadband goals set by the state say that everyone in Minnesota should have access to Internet download speeds of at least 100 Megabits per second by 2026. According to our analysis of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data, approximately 65,000 people in the Rochester area only have access to that speed from a single provider, Charter Communications.

Rochester is likely even worse off since official statistics significantly overstate broadband access and competition. The FCC collects provider data by census block, so even if a company can offer Internet access to one house, they report the entire area as served. The FCC data also obscures the fact that rates for the reported speeds could be unaffordable, resulting in most families subscribing to much slower speeds. Residents ultimately have no real choice of provider, in contrast to the mirage of competition created by the data.

City officials should gladly welcome MetroNet into Rochester to guarantee residents have access to fast speeds from more than one Internet service provider. But they don’t have to stop there. If council members really care about the well-being of their constituents, they should do even more to promote competition and the deployment of broadband infrastructure. This includes supporting many of the causes championed by fellow council member Michael Wojcik, such as investing in infrastructure that the city could lease to providers.

Municipal investment is essential because Rochester will have little control over the future of MetroNet’s service. Many telecommunications companies have a history of consolidation followed by worsening services, but Rochester can take steps to avoid this. By not only facilitating MetroNet’s expansion but also laying its own conduit and fiber, Rochester could ensure robust competition in its broadband market for years to come.

The city’s elected officials have historically been reluctant to challenge Charter’s near-monopoly on high-speed Internet access, citing the cost of building a network and the number of existing providers. Now, Rochester residents might finally enjoy local Internet choice, as long as the city council welcomes MetroNet instead of once again taking orders from Charter.

Katie Kienbaum is a Minneapolis-based research associate with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

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