Broadband access is critical — and so is installing it responsibly

📢 MinnPost has transitioned digital operations to a new system, so things may look a little different on the website. If you find pages or features that no longer look right, please flag them by emailing

MinnPost is a nonprofit newsroom that relies on the support of readers to remain free for all to access — no paywall or subscriptions. Will you help us keep it this way by supporting our newsroom with a donation today?  Aluminium Tape Armored Power Cable

Broadband access is critical — and so is installing it responsibly

Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

State Government | Metro | Public Safety | Greater Minnesota | National | Environment | Mental Health & Addiction | Sports

In today’s hyper-connected economy, access to high-speed internet can transform a community. Lack of access can smother its future.

So the stakes are high as Minnesota is poised to invest more than $650 million in federal funding for broadband, thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure bill championed by President Joe Biden.

But the stakes are also high when inexperienced, underpaid workers install fiber optics cables, often digging within inches of dangerous gas utilities or powerlines. One careless error could be fatal to workers and catastrophic to a community.

You’d think an industry working in proximity to such vital, yet hazardous, infrastructure would be tightly regulated, with specific safety and training requirements enforced.

Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

Unlike the utility sector, there are minimal regulations and safety standards in the broadband industry, and what few exist aren’t properly enforced, judging from conversations with contractors and workers.

That’s why I’ve been watching with alarm as more and more work in the broadband industry goes to fly-by-night contractors that bring in out-of-state workers who don’t have the proper training to do this work safely.

Here’s an example: Gas companies routinely bring in hydro excavation trucks to safely expose existing pipelines before digging nearby. If you can see the pipes, you’re much less likely to strike one. But irresponsible broadband installers often skip this step — they just bring in a backhoe with an inexperienced operator and hope they don’t nick a gas line.

Workers using heavy equipment to install broadband near utilities should have the same qualifications as those doing gas pipeline and other utility maintenance work.

Another problem is fair wages. Despite broadband projects receiving significant state subsidies, non-union workers haven’t been receiving the pay and benefits they deserve. That leads to high turnover and even less jobsite experience, creating greater risk.

As leader of the largest construction union in the state, I know Minnesota has well-trained operators who can perform this work safely.

They work for more than a dozen contractors that provide family-sustaining jobs in your communities. They benefit from our gold-standard apprenticeship program and a top-tier national training center. And they learn how to operate heavy equipment safely in utility corridors and other situations.

These responsible companies that employ skilled local workers at union wages and benefits must compete with cutthroat, out-of-state contractors that undercut our local standards at the expense of workers and the safety of communities.

With significant new federal resources to support broadband deployment, now is the time for the state to ensure public money goes to responsible contractors that pay workers fairly and prioritize safety.

It’s also time to establish basic safety and training requirements — similar to those found in other industries — to protect workers and communities. Commonsense measures, like drug and alcohol testing and minimum training standards, will benefit everyone.

We’ll be working with legislators this session on ways to improve the situation, because this issue touches every corner of our state. We share the goal of ensuring all Minnesotans have access to reliable broadband service. And that can only be accomplished safely by using well-trained, fairly paid workers.

Jason George is the business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, which represents nearly 15,000 heavy equipment operators, mechanics and stationary engineers across Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, consider writing a Community Voices commentary or counterpoint. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)

As a nonprofit newsroom, MinnPost relies on donations from readers like you.

Your donation right now will help keep our in-depth journalism free for all to access

is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit newsroom

P.O. Box 18438 | Minneapolis, MN, 55418 | 612.455.6950

We've recently sent you an authentication link. Please, check your inbox!

Sign in with a password below, or sign in using your email.

Get a code sent to your email to sign in, or sign in using a password.

Enter the code you received via email to sign in, or sign in using a password.

Sign in with your email

Broadband access is critical — and so is installing it responsibly

Fiber Cable Sign in with a password