Duluth Mayor Emily Larson announced earlier this month that one of her top priorities would be to provide faster and less-expensive internet service to the city. To do so, she proposes to invest $1 million in COVID-19 relief funds "to incentivize new service providers to enter the market" to compete with Spectrum, which dominates the local scene at present.
At large Councilor Derek Medved said he is eager to gather more information on possible solutions but hasn't yet reached any conclusions regarding what sort of investment of public funds might be appropriate.
"I look forward to the conversation with administration when it comes to funding," he said. "So, two separate things: I support broadband, but yet again I want to have a deeper discussion when it comes to funding."
The Duluth City Council on Monday unanimously passed a resolution requesting city staff to "study and evaluate the current state of broadband service and provide recommendations for significantly improving broadband access in Duluth, including serving underserved communities."
"The pandemic this past year and this year have really shown the vast disparities within our society and our country that exist" said at large Councilor Zack Filipovich, one of the resolution's sponsors. "And this is one step that we can take locally to attempt to level the playing field for hardworking Duluthians."
Another co-sponsor, Joel Sipress, said: "The problem with broadband in Duluth is the problem of monopoly. It's a monopoly. We have one provider, and a monopoly is basically when you have a market that's controlled by one provider.
"Whenever you've got a monopoly, it's a problem. But monopoly becomes a really serious problem when one provider controls the market for a necessity. And I think it has become really clear to everybody that broadband is not a luxury," Sipress said.
Other co-sponsors of the resolution included councilors Arik Forsman and Roz Randorf.
The city is still evaluating all its options, said Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer.
Meanwhile, Superior officials have been weighing a proposal to install a city-wide open-access fiber optic network at an estimated cost of about $31 million.
"There are several different ways that you can approach the problem of monopoly, and one is to try to entice competition," Sipress said. "And that's the approach that's emphasized by this resolution. And I think in the short term in Duluth, that's the right approach, because that's pretty much what we've got."
But Sipress said broadband service should be recognized as a public utility and regulated as such. He also urged city officials to remain open to the long-range idea of considering a publicly owned delivery system along the lines of what Superior is contemplating.