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Our View: Minnesota must keep pace with technology

The use of Internet-connected devices like cell phones, tablets — and even garage-door openers and the thermostats on our living-room walls — is exploding. Internet providers are scrambling to keep up, and right now that includes shoebox-sized antennas that can be affixed to traffic signals and that can greatly increase the number of people connected in congested areas.

Unfortunately, the scramble to affix these so-called small-cell antennas, or small cells, is being hampered by outdated state and local regulations and requirements written for and put in place for the massive cell towers of yesterday.

Because Minnesota must keep pace with technology if it wants to keep up with other states and the rest of the world in attracting business and encouraging economic progress, the Legislature this session can take action to streamline and make consistent throughout the state rules, regulations and requirements for small cells.

"The deployment of small cells is one way providers can meet the demands on the network and also prepare for the next generation of wireless technologies called 5G," Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Ross wrote in February in a letter urging lawmakers to find agreement on new measures. "This legislation will help enhance the wireless networks that Minnesota businesses rely upon to grow their companies and attract new investment."

"These are the future," AT&T Minnesota President Paul Weirtz said of small cells in an interview last week with the News Tribune editorial board. "The argument is if we can get some parameters as to how to deploy this over the 854 communities in Minnesota, just some standards around that, it's going to get those antennas employed sooner. And that's going to help bring that 5G wireless coverage quicker to Minnesota."

The parameters the Legislature needs to determine — and, encouragingly, it's working with providers, the League of Minnesota Cities and others to do so — include how much cities receive in rent, or rates, for small cells on traffic signals and in public right-of-ways. That varies widely right now. In cities in Ohio, it's $200 per year, for example. In Indiana, cities charge $50 a year, according to Weirtz.

But in Duluth, he said, the reported rate runs $6,000 annually.

Clearly, Internet providers right now aren't getting the consistent and fair rates they deserve and for which they can plan and with which they can do their work.

"We're not seeing these rates anywhere else in the country," Weirtz said of Duluth's. "The legislation we're hoping to do would put some common sense around a statewide rate structure. We don't know what that number is going to be, but, you know, we're hoping it's south of $6,000."

There's urgency in the Legislature getting this done this session. The Super Bowl is coming to Minneapolis next year. How embarrassing to our state if the throngs of fans and media from around the world aren't able to stay connected. Also, other states — including Ohio, Arizona, Virginia, Colorado and Iowa — are ahead of Minnesota in the race to cash in on the 5G technology.

"You really can't underestimate the demand for 5G that's going to be out there. It's less than two years away," said Weirtz, who's also a member of the Governor's Task Force on Broadband. "And my concern is, OK, right now, if Iowa signs a bill into law before we do, Radar O'Reilly's hometown of Ottumwa, Iowa, is going to look like a lot better place to invest in than Duluth. Its terms and conditions are going to be better. ... This is job creation."

And the sort of legislation that stands to benefit all of Minnesota. A deal has to be found. This session.

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