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Duluth mayor strategizes with other city leaders nationwide to improve broadband service

The expected availability of federal funds has been hailed as "a historic opportunity" to offer better access.

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When it comes to high-speed internet, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson makes it clear she considers such service anything but a luxury.

“This is no longer a nice-to-have. It is a need-to-have. And there is something about it that I think deserves and merits some public oversight,” she said, advocating for data delivery services to be regulated more like other conventional utilities.

Earlier this week, Larson electronically joined a national panel of mayors at a Heartland Forward online broadband workshop to discuss both the challenges and opportunities cities face at this moment.

Memphis, Tennessee Mayor Jim Strickland agreed with Larson, regarding the importance of improving broadband access and making it more affordable.

“The more I get into this, the more I really do believe that if we can accomplish this, it’s going to be as important to the quality of life and economic development as it was 100 years ago, when they connected electricity to (all) premises and every business. I think it will be that revolutionary,” he said.

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Besides funds already made available to cities through the American Rescue Plan Act, a pending federal infrastructure bill soon could release significant additional funds to improve broadband service around the nation.

“This is a historic opportunity to solve problems that we’ve all known for a long time,” said Blair Levin, a senior fellow with the National Urban League.

He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened awareness of the importance of improved broadband access and said the focus and resources being brought to bear could result in significant progress.

“It’s going to be a very exciting couple of years, also a very hard couple of years,” Levin predicted.

Even as additional funds become available, Levin said it will be critical to develop accurate maps of service gaps.

“Nothing happens from the infrastructure bill perspective, until the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) produces a good map,” he said, explaining that there are independent efforts to develop more detailed maps, as well.

“As we sit here today, none of those maps are adequate to justify the expenditure of money. That’s something Congress put in, and I think they were wise to do so,” Levin said of the requirement.

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File: Emily Larson.jpg
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson. Contributed / City of Duluth

Larson agreed that current service maps are misleading.

“On the maps, we look served. But when you actually get into our neighborhoods, we are underserved,” she said. “It is hard for us to advance equity in broadband access and internet access because we appear to be served, primarily through a monopoly system. So, what we have been doing here in Duluth is really being bold about where we see the disconnects and what’s happening.”

She said about 35% of the city’s population has no reliable, consistent broadband access.

Larson noted that Duluth has earmarked about $1 million in American Rescue Plan funds “to invest and incentivize some competition in the market.” She said Duluth also is working with 20 surrounding communities to explore what can be done to improve coverage.

“I’m so excited for that day when we do get there, and we will get there. There is no doubt in my mind. It will be very difficult. It will be costly. It will be completely worth it, because then cities really can become communities of choice,” Larson said, predicting that if high-speed internet becomes more widely available and affordable in locations such as Duluth, more people will make their homes there.

“To be really honest, our residents deserve this. Our businesses deserve it, our entrepreneurs, our dreamers deserve it,” Larson said during the discussion. “Access makes our lives better, and I don’t think any of us on this panel, this call, this workshop, would feel comfortable not having access and not being able to afford it. That’s not right. That’s not who we are as a country. We’re capable of so much better and so much more.”

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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