Michigan pushes broadband

LinkMichigan report

The Michigan Senate introduced legislation last week to speed up Internet broadband development and access throughout the state as a way to spur economic growth and address the digital divide.

S.B. 880 and S.B. 881, championed by Gov. John Engler, grew out of a Michigan Economic Development Corporation report in May that said many regions lack the adequate backbone to carry high-speed voice, video and data traffic. The report also said unregulated infrastructure — fiber-optic cable and advanced switching capabilities — was being installed with little or no knowledge by government officials.

According to that report, called LinkMichigan (linkmichigan.michigan.org), complaints have been growing among citizens and businesses regarding high-speed Internet service. By accelerating deployment, state officials said more than 500,000 jobs would be created and the gross state product would increase by $440 billion over the next decade.

According to a letter from Engler posted on the Michigan portal (www.michigan.gov), fewer than one in 20 residents has access to a high-speed connection and the state is ranked 24th in the nation in the growth of broadband lines. Engler is urging citizens to write their state legislators in support of the bills and provides direct e-mail links to specific legislators through the portal.

The state's plan, embodied in the bills, would create a state oversight authority to levy fees for access to and use of public rights-of-way within a municipality to provide telecommunications services. The plan also calls for creating a state financing authority to help fund deployment in underserved areas.

Susan Shafer, a spokeswoman for the governor, said such an oversight authority would "level the playing field." Currently, she said depending on the region or municipality, fees are uneven and high and frequently discourage broadband investment.

"Broadband has moved from a luxury to a necessity," she said.

But Scott Stevenson, president of the Telecommunications Association of Michigan (www.telecommich.org), a state-based trade organization representing 36 member telephone companies and another 120 affiliated members, said the bills would create more red tape and impose a $70 million tax. The current state of broadband deployment is "pretty good," he said, adding that government should stay out of it.

"We obviously think the issue of broadband deployment in Michigan is an important public policy issue, and that's where the agreement with the government ends," he said. "The ultimate question is, How will [these bills] improve broadband deployment?"

Stevenson said there are ways that government can help industry accelerate deployment without creating additional bureaucracy, such as ending excessive local government regulations and excessive local fees for rights-of-way, and providing a broadband tax credit.

The bills, he said, don't address those needs. "I personally don't see these bills going anywhere this year," he said.

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