The Information Dirt Road

IT'S THE LOGIC of the marketplace: Small and comparatively low-income populations don't offer the kind of immediate payoff that companies traveling the infobahn like to see for their services. So for the last few years much of rural Minnesota has been stuck paying long-distance rates to dial into the closest Internet access provider. That was supposed to change under a bill state Rep. Steve Kelley (DFL-Hopkins) introduced earlier this year at the Legislature. It would have set a goal of having local dial-up Internet access in all Minnesota communities by 1998, and some fancier services like interactive audio and video communications by 2000 and 2010. If the market didn't take care of places like Pipestone and Cook by those target dates, Kelly proposed, the state would step in and subsidize service. It would all be paid for by a 1 percent tax on "information service providers," including phone, cable, and Internet access companies.

Not surprisingly, the communications companies weren't happy. Independent phone companies and Internet access providers lined up at the Capitol to tell lawmakers that the measure would bankrupt them; US West wasn't quite so alarmed, but did tell the Star Tribune that "heavy-handed regulation" could only gum up competition. More surprising, perhaps, was opposition to the bill from current Net users, especially anti-censorship advocates, who marshaled a little cyber-firestorm in the days before a committee vote last week. They were worried because the bill would have given the state Public Utilities Commission (which regulates phone, electric and gas services, among other things) some authority over Net access rates; next thing you knew, the reasoning went, the state might try to regulate content. Whether that would have been possible is unclear, but with the federal telecommunications bill already throwing the First Amendment to the wind by way of "indecency" provisions, free-speech activists are leery of anything that smells like government involvement in cyberspace.

All of which ensured that Kelley's bill was pretty much dead on arrival. Or, as they say at the Legislature, it was amended, postponed, and laid over for further study. That, says Mike O'Connor, who runs an Internet company in St. Paul and was one of the bill's few vocal advocates in the Net community, makes at least four separate "study" projects from various branches of state government regarding Internet access, not to mention separate efforts by nonprofit agencies. "When you start rattling them off," says O'Connor, "there's something like 12 groups out there, each with their own report and their own constituency, each going, 'over here, follow me.' But you can only study an issue so long until you start doing something about it."

 
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