STAR TRIBUNE | ‘Right to repair’ push back in front of Minnesota legislators

Two women and one man smile at the camera in reflective safety vests

Brad Sandnas saved a lot of money repairing his children’s iPads and other devices. Then he started fixing them for people at work.

“And it grew to the point where I opened my store. Now we do several thousand devices a year,” Sandnas said of EZ Screen Fix in Virginia, Minn.

But Sandnas maintains a light inventory and passed on invitations to buy the small building he rents or expand to another town.

The reality is that giants Apple or Samsung could put him out of business anytime by detecting and locking down phones that are not “serialized” to Apple-authorized technicians.

It has happened with some late-model iPhones he’s fixed with refurbished parts or those he buys from independent suppliers.

Sandnas testified last month for a “fair repair” bill before the Minnesota House that would force manufacturers, from John Deere to Apple, to share directions, diagnostic equipment and parts with owners and independent repair shops.

The Minnesota House in 2020, backed by digital-electronic manufacturers and dealers, passed a repair-reform bill that was turned back by the Republican-majority Senate.

Indeed, No. 1 Apple, under pressure, has relaxed restrictions somewhat to allow independent repair shops to make some fixes. Fair-repair advocates say opening the field to more competition will lower repair bills.

A 2021 Federal Trade Commission report noted that homebound workers and students during the pandemic were often unable to get their devices fixed in a timely and economical manner and that there is not enough refurbished equipment to meet demand.

The report concluded that “repair restrictions” had “steered consumers into manufacturers’ repair networks or to replace products before the end of their useful lives” and there is “scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions” over safety and privacy.

Fair repair returned this year to the Minnesota Legislature, as well as about 30 other states and Congress. A bill has cleared two key committees of the DFL-majority Minnesota House and is headed for likely passage. So far, in the Republican-led Senate, a bill offered by DFL Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart, an engineer, has yet to get a hearing.

Republican Sen. Dave Osmek, who sponsored the bill in 2020, is sitting this one out. Osmek said through a Senate Republican spokeswoman that Republicans won’t move until ag-equipment makers, led by John Deere, reach a negotiated deal with reformers.

More than a dozen technology-industry trade groups, representing hundreds of manufacturers and dealers, told the Legislature in a February letter they oppose fair repair that would mandate the original equipment manufacturers to provide independent providers with diagnostic and repair information plus software and parts while not requiring “critical consumer protections afforded by authorized repair networks.” That includes training and competency certification.

Critics of the manufacturer-dealer consortium say they want to protect their monopoly.

They note the auto industry is required by federal law to provide repair information and diagnostic tools and parts, including domestic after-market suppliers, to independent repair operators. Yet, they say the auto industry increasingly is making it difficult for independent repair shops.

U.S. Rep. Victoria Spartz, an Indiana Republican and co-sponsor of the federal bill, said in February: “It’s time to level the playing field for small businesses, mechanics, farmers and consumers. When Americans purchase a product, it should never be assumed they also agree to the manufacturer performing maintenance … regardless of cost.”

Amanda LaGrange, CEO of Tech Dump (now Repowered) and a local force behind fair repair, acknowledged that Apple and Microsoft have relaxed restrictions enough to allow her business to refurbish and sell more equipment than several years ago.

And she and other proponents want Minnesota businesses to produce more refurbished electronics, the highest-value products. That would mean more rebuilt products and less lower-value recycling and waste.

Tech Dump can’t meet demand from consumers and businesses for its refurbished laptops and other electronics sold through its Tech Discounts business.

Tech Dump, with operations and retail locations in St. Paul and Golden Valley, expects a 25% increase in revenue this year to about $8 million, thanks partly to foundation grants that help it train disadvantaged workers, some of whom have criminal records and chemical dependency in their backgrounds. Everybody starts at $16-to-$19 an hour.

LaGrange dismissed manufacturer concerns, noting that Tech Dump, a refurbisher and recycler of electronics, has the requisite certifications for experience, safety and privacy compliant with industry standards.

“We can harvest screens and some parts, but the industry doesn’t want to give up its current business model that leads to disposal of $1,000 iPhones,” she asserted. “It’s not that hard to fix. It’s the diagnostic software that’s not accessible, and repair manuals and parts. It’s not intellectual property.”

It’s time for an agreement that creates more “manufacturing” of refurbished devices — and a better deal for thrifty consumers that also will be good for the economy and environment.

By Neal St. Anthony

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist/reporter since 1984.

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