Updated: Mar 10, 2022
In a rural Indiana diner, I sat across the table from a seasoned, semi-retired government worker who posed the question, “what is left to be said about broadband? It’s done. We need to move on.”
That was early 2019. Doubtless that opinion has been abandoned as we have seen exactly what is left to be said about broadband – quite a lot. The pandemic has proven that over and over.
In 2019, it may have felt like a discussion for bureaucrats to handle as they worked through grant formulas. But in 2021, and now in 2022, broadband access is paramount on every level, from government and schools to businesses and individual connections.
Decision makers are clearly getting the message as state budgets, federal stimulus, local matches and philanthropic dollars pour into the broadband problem. They are all working to address the twin problems of cost and infrastructure and how they present differently in urban and rural environments.
The solution appears deceptively simple. But throwing money into a seemingly bottomless pit of need is hardly a strategic maneuver. How we spend the money is equally important, and thankfully we have an ideal case study to guide us.
A century ago, the United States was reeling from a pandemic as it forged ahead to harness the power of rapidly advancing technology. What electrification was to FDR and the 20th century, broadband is to us now, and we can apply historical lessons learned to our modern world.
We know the government exists to provide public goods – those services and resources needed by the entire population that cannot otherwise be achieved or accessed. Our taxes fund the military, law enforcement and first responders, and infrastructure from sewers and interstates to electricity, and they can fund broadband.
In the 1930’s, FDR famously championed electrification with the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, still the largest publicly owned power provider in the nation, and the Rural Electrification Administration. He called electricity a “modern necessity of life”. That was more than 50 years after Thomas Edison opened the first electric power system at his Pearl Street Station in New York.
It required vision and action to bring about America’s electrification. Thankfully, broadband access is something that unites partisans and is generally held to be a legitimate use of public resources – even across Presidential administrations. When the market proved the much-needed final miles were not cost-effective for electricity, our leaders defined it as a public good and funded it. That requires persistent leadership and local collaboration.
After the TVA and the REA were established, states saw locally owned and operated collectives form to bring power to rural America. You may recognize the acronym REMC – Rural Electric Membership Cooperative – they were hugely important to the final connections needed to light up the countryside. These groups got their start with low-cost loans from the REA and continue to bring power to rural communities across the country. In fact, they were so effective that within twenty years of the REA’s inception, all but 10% of US farms had electricity.
Today we see collaboration and local energy at the center of the effort to bring broadband access to these same remote areas. As recently as April 2021, Indiana’s Smithville and SCI REMC announced a partnership allowing high-speed internet to come to more than 3,400 homes that had similarly been disconnected.
In addition, government funds are being pooled by savvy local governments that recognize the necessity of connectivity. Vigo County Schools are using federal COVID stimulus dollars in tandem with County Council economic development tax (EDIT) funds to bring more people online than they could have independently. This kind of collaboration relies heavily on the quality of information we have, and that is another lesson we can take from the past.
Money is said to make the world turn, but data tells it which way to go. Our best intentions to secure funding will be for naught if we cannot tell where and how the money needs to be spent. When FDR championed rural electrification, it was easy to tell who had electricity. You could look out and see the landscapes untouched by power lines, and it was clear how far power plants could transport their product before losing voltage. Today, we need more than our eyes to prove who is still in the dark.
America’s broadband access woes center around a data problem that spans administrations, republican and democrat alike, yet we still struggle to understand exactly who needs assistance and where they live. The latest Broadband Progress Report from the FCC may be a gross under estimation of need, citing just 6% of Americans who lack broadband access, but they are based on maps that are notoriously unreliable.
Electrification moved boldly forward confident in its data set, and the effort eventually folded in the expanding telephone companies that wanted to access rural customers. Building correct maps will mean good stewardship of shared data between the companies providing services, the agencies engaging public funds, and the consumers reporting accurately.
Looking back, we can see the clear steps from leadership to collaboration to information we must follow. To this we can also add an element of education, providing communities newly online with information about this important utility from ethics to security and the huge new opportunities they will enjoy. When the REA began its work, advisors traveled the country to teach people how to use the technology to their greatest benefit.
We can help each other use this progress well. But first we must keep the conversation going. There is still so much to be said and done about broadband access, and I imagine if I had the opportunity to chat with my colleague again over our diner fare, she would be the first to agree.
 https://americanhistory.si.edu/lighting/19thcent/consq19.htm  https://ethw.org/Pearl_Street_Station  https://www.electric.coop/our-organization/history  https://www.nps.gov/home/learn/historyculture/ruralelect.htm  https://www.electric.coop/our-organization/history  https://www.smithville.com/news/smithville-sci-remc-activate-first-high-speed-customers-in-unique-fiber-project-for-3400-residents-and-businesses/  https://www.tribstar.com/news/local_news/vigo-council-to-consider-funds-to-expand-internet-access/article_9acf06d8-2616-5ee5-ac8f-11e51a4e38dc.html  https://www.cnet.com/features/millions-of-americans-cant-get-broadband-because-of-a-faulty-fcc-map-theres-a-fix/  https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/reports/broadband-progress-reports/eighth-broadband-progress-report  https://www.cnet.com/features/millions-of-americans-cant-get-broadband-because-of-a-faulty-fcc-map-theres-a-fix/  https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?path=/prelim@title7/chapter31&edition=prelim  https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/rural-electrification