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Launched in 2014 by journalist Sean Baker, Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Op-ed: The source of Mayor Brede's influence on municipal broadband is suspicious

Op-ed: The source of Mayor Brede's influence on municipal broadband is suspicious

Mayor Ardell Brede’s attempt to scuttle Rochester’s investigation into municipal broadband does not serve the city and raises suspicions about where his loyalties lie.

Recently it was announced that the Rochester Public Utility would examine the possibility of investing in city-wide broadband service. Already successfully implemented in hundreds of medium sized cities nationwide, municipal broadband aims to treat high-speed internet access as a public utility. Recently RPU presented its initial findings to the city council. It estimated the cost of the program in the range of $53 million. The council will need to authorize a market study to move the process forward.

But on August 31, at the request of Mayor Brede, City Administrator Steve Kvenvold forwarded an email to all members of the council regarding broadband. The mayor aimed to influence members by sharing with them an email exchange between himself and Douglas Palmer, the Director of Urban Development & Government Affairs for the national Mayors Business Council. The mayor’s email included a Wall Street Journal article and a “survey” by the group Public Opinion Strategies. The email is linked here in pdf.

 

Brede does not disclose it but the source of the email, the Mayors Business Council, includes amongst its official members, Comcast, Cox and Verizon. Palmer himself is a lobbyist specializing in intergovernmental and corporate consulting. Even more egregious, Ron Orlando, the Vice President of Government Affairs for Comcast Cable, currently sits on the Steering Committee of the Mayor’s Business Council. Comcast’s Ron Orlando is also a member of the
National Conference of State Legislatures, which in 2014 threatened to sue the Federal Communications Commission if it attempted to invalidate state laws that restrict the ability of cities to build municipal broadband. In simple terms, the source of the email Mayor Brede shared with the council comes directly from the spokesman for an organization which counts a Comcast executive in leadership, an executive who has actively worked to stop municipal broadband programs. 

Next, the anti-municipal broadband “survey” Palmer quotes in Brede’s email is in fact a poll done by Public Opinion Strategies. This polling firm is well known for its work on partisan party politics and big businesses causes. What Brede's email fails to disclose is that this poll was originally conducted on behalf of the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, a corporate "grassroots" group that is on a crusade to stop municipal broadband. The TPA also recently put together a report titled "The Dirty Dozen" about "the most well-known failures in government broadband." It was released by TPA in July, in concert with, but separate from, the Public Opinion Strategies poll Brede promoted. 

The original poll Brede shared is online here and includes the very leading questions used by the poll. For example, the poll asked its 800 respondents what “one or two” would you say are the most important “community problems.” The question included “lack of affordable homes,” “crime and gangs” and “illegal drugs like meth and heroin.” The poll arrived at the answer it sought, that the vast majority of those polled were less worried about high speed internet access than crime and heroin abuse. (The slide in question is embedded below.)

Graphic: Taxpayer Protection Alliance

Graphic: Taxpayer Protection Alliance

The polling company then framed that question in the Brede email as “a mere one percent named access to high speed internet” as an issue local officials should be focused on. Would you like municipal broadband or would you like heroin and gang crime controlled, by the reasoning of Brede’s poll, it’s one or the other.

Meanwhile, Taxpayer Consumer Alliance’s President wrote an op-ed last year titled “Washington’s Anti-Merger Agenda Threatens Pro-Consumer Deals” where he argued that “the proposed mergers between Marriott and Starwood and between Charter Communications/Time Warner Cable (aka New Charter), seem to be clearly in the best interest of consumers. New Charter has identified numerous ways it would engage customers, including keeping costs low and quality at a premium. For example, New Charter would exercise flat-rate billing, allow unlimited data use, and not issue modem fees. It’s committed to investing significantly in its broadband network, meaning better access for residential customers.”

This despite the fact that the FCC review of that merger stated: “We conclude that the transaction will materially alter [Charter's] incentives and abilities in ways that are potentially harmful to the public interest.” The FCC review continued to warn that the merger "will increase incentives to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle."

Brede’s email also includes a mention of a Wall Street Journal article that the emailer (Mayors Council’s Palmer) wrongly identifies as an “editorial.” The article was by the Journal’s tech correspondent and focused solely on plans by Google (Alphabet) to roll out its high-speed broadband business. By identifying the piece as an editorial it —intentionally or by uninformed mistake—conflates Google’s struggles building broadband networks with municipal broadband programs. The two are completely unrelated. 

 
 

In conclusion, the email Mayor Brede shared with the council members in the hopes of influencing their decisions on your access to municipal broadband was loaded with a sketchy poll commissioned by an organization strongly against municipal broadband. Further, Brede got the email from his friend, a spokesman of a Washington DC-headquartered organization that counts an executive Comcast lobbyist in its direct leadership. 

Rochester cannot let a man loyal to opaque mayoral councils determine the future of its technological infrastructure. Research and think what you want about whether municipal broadband is a program right for this city. But please do not listen to what the Mayor puts forward on the issue. The mayor is either compromised on the sources of his information and is being manipulated. Or he is knowingly supporting an outcome on the behalf of a national organization with ulterior motives. Either way, he does not appear to have the best interests of Rochester in mind. Please share this actual editorial with your council member so that he or she fully weighs the source of the Mayor’s “advice.”

Abe Sauer is a writer and business owner living in Rochester.


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