What are south burbs doing about broadband Internet?
Broadband: Still a buzzword for local leaders in Scott and Dakota counties.

By Sarah Lemagie, Star Tribune

Last update: December 12, 2006 – 10:16 AM

As Minneapolis and suburbs such as St. Louis Park move ahead with citywide wireless initiatives, broadband continues to be a hot topic for south-metro leaders. Dozens of them -- including state, city, county and industry representatives -- met last week for a workshop that resulted in the formation of a regional broadband task force to look for ways to bring low-cost, high-speed communications services to government buildings and the public. Below, an update on where the discussion is now.

Q What are south-metro cities doing right now to improve broadband services?

A So far, no south-metro community has rolled out a citywide broadband initiative on the scale of suburbs such as St. Louis Park and Chaska, but Eagan, Lakeville and Shakopee have all discussed the idea and taken preliminary steps such as conducting community Internet satisfaction surveys.

The Burnsville City Council studied broadband availability for months before telling city staff this fall to work with existing Internet providers to meet the council's goal of providing high-speed Internet of 50 to 100 megabits per second to every home and business in the city.

Last month, telephone company Frontier Communications reached an agreement with the city to roll out community-wide wireless service within two years, a plan that company and city representatives said came together more quickly because of the council's interest in broadband. Frontier is also working on similar agreements with Apple Valley, Rosemount, Lakeville and Farmington.

Dakota County is continuing an ongoing project to connect public buildings with high-speed fiber-optic cable, and Scott County recently began planning a 90-mile fiber-optic loop that would link up with Dakota County's network.

Q Why do local government leaders care about broadband?

A Competing in the global marketplace is a concern even for suburban leaders. Consumer prices are an issue, too. In Eagan, for example, a typical residential customer pays $27 to $43 for Internet service of six to eight megabits per second, while Amsterdam residents can pay a comparable price for 20-megabit-per-second connections, said city Communications Director Tom Garrison.

Q What models are they looking at?

A Minnesota suburbs have their eye on cutting-edge community broadband initiatives such as the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA), a consortium of 14 cities outside Salt Lake City that have banded together to provide low-cost fiber-optic Internet connections with speeds of 100 megabits per second to all their residents.

Q What are the obstacles, according to local experts?

A Cost, an uncertain regulatory environment and lack of legislative support are all hurdles.

Filling in local leaders on the benefits of broadband can also be a challenge.

"You have to educate your elected officials, because they're going to make the decision," said Burnsville Communications Coordinator Jim Skelly. "They're not going to vote yes on it if they don't understand it."

Lack of a champion for the cause was part of the reason that Shakopee's telecommunications advisory committee recently decided not to continue its study of citywide broadband, said chairman Bill Anderson.

"No one was chomping at the bit" to make it happen, he said.
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