Computing Profession

We the People and the Right to Broadband

The push for universal broadband to rural America could be this century's stab at rural electrification and phone service.

  1. Lead-in
  2. Introduction
  3. Enter the TVA
  4. Broadband as Utility
  5. Broadband Done Right
  6. Electricity of the 21st Century
  7. Author
  8. Footnotes
  9. Figures
modernized TVA broadband image

Even before the calendar said 2009, the markets had dropped, pink slips had fallen like snow, and house prices had begun a long crawl downward. Many in the U.S. looked to Washington D.C. for leadership in rousing the sluggish economy and generating new jobs. The resulting stimulus package, signed into law February 17, is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, offering tax breaks, allotting money for physical infrastructure, and designating $7.2 billion for broadband build-out. This last bit—less than 1 percent of the new law’s total allocation ($787 billion), has stirred controversy.

Under the law, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has a year to develop a broadband policy, but oversight of money for broadband is split between the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The broadband initiative as spelled out in the law focuses on rural service, particularly those locations where broadband is currently unavailable. Without this carrot, the thinking goes, ISPs will be reluctant to invest in service to those areas where the population is relatively so sparse they cannot expect to recoup the infrastructure investment needed for delivery.

Can government funding influence a coherent technology roll-out into low-density-population areas? Looking back at the 20th century build-out of rural telephone service, it seems probable. History suggests that the slowness of government funding could likewise slow the provision of rural service.

Rural phone service in the early years of the 20th century was largely the provenance of farmers’ cooperatives. By 1927 more than 6,000 of these community-based service providers existed but were generally underfunded, followed uneven business practices, and provided inconsistent maintenance, making deterioration of the cooperatives a problem from the start. In 1934 the U.S. Congress passed The Communications Act, which mandated “a rapid, efficient, nationwide and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.” But calling for an adequate telephone service and funding it are clearly two different things, so ironically, by 1940 fewer rural inhabitants had phones than had them in 1920.

Finally, in 1949, the Rural Electrification Act, originally passed in 1936, was amended to include funding for rural telephony, specifically low-interest-rate loans for rural telephone systems. These so-called REA loans were the foundation of a broad telephone build-out by a number of providers, including telephone cooperatives that resulted in better coverage throughout the rural U.S.

However, government involvement in rural electrification took a different course—as it was prompt in funding and quick in establishing an organizational effort. When the stock market crashed in 1929, there was a big divide in the U.S. between the technology haves and the have-nots—largely dictated by location. Stringing lines was expensive, so return on investment was more likely in cities. As a result, about 90 percent of city-dwellers were on the grid while 90 percent of those in the country were still squinting to finish their evening chores by the light of an oil lamp.

Enter the TVA

While rural electrification involved a number of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, the iconic example was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA was a federal program created by Congress to provide not only electrical service, but economic development to the vast Tennessee Valley, including parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, (today covering 80,000 square miles), which had been devastated by the financial hardships of the 1930s.

By 1933, the year the TVA received its Congressional charter, the U.S. was in the fourth year of the Great Depression. Many in the Tennessee Valley and neighboring regions faced grinding poverty that made a luxury like electrical service completely out of reach. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers struggled against a legacy of poor farm management involving clear-cutting forest, overfarming the land for several years, then moving on when the depleted acreage became unproductive. The result was soil that was exhausted and eroding. The TVA promised publicly generated electrical power for the underserved rural population, jobs for at least some of those who needed them, and a side helping of flood and erosion control.

Though people still argue about whether the TVA was a good idea, it ultimately changed the character of life in the Tennessee Valley area over the decades. “As of 1933 in the TVA service area, 15,000 farms, one in every 28, had electric service; at the end of fiscal year 1950, 350,000—or five out of six—were being served,” says Patricia Bernard Ezzell, TVA historian.

And jobs? “People were put to work immediately with the hydro construction projects,” says Ezzell. In 1933 the TVA employed only around 200 people, but by the following year employment surpassed 9,000, and by the year after that the work force figure had reached 16,457. “These numbers reflect construction workers, as well as engineers, librarians, accountants, planners,” she says.

But what was essentially a working-class government bailout was not greeted with universal approval. “There were private utility companies that were against government competing with private enterprise,” says Ezzell.

These companies enlisted persuasive voices to speak on their behalf in Washington. From the beginning, Congressional Republicans protested that government had no business providing electricity, that doing so constituted interference with a free market, and that the TVA was going to kick the whole country down the slippery slope toward socialism.

Notable among the voices representing local electric companies that objected to the government offering a cheap electricity option to rural homes, farms, and industry was Wendell Willkie, president of the privately held power utility Commonwealth and Southern Company. The question of whether government should involve itself in providing any kind of utility service was such a powerful and divisive political issue that Willkie—despite having no previous political experience and had formerly been a Democrat—was recruited by the Republican Party to run against President Roosevelt in 1940.

The TVA was not the only New Deal initiative that met well-funded, well-connected opposition. In January 1936 the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Recovery Act were both declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. So it was a surprise decision when a month later the same Court ruled that the TVA was constitutional.

Broadband as Utility

Broadband has also proved to be an issue that splits along party lines. When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was a bill circulating the legislative halls, it passed in the House 246–183, with the entire body of 176 Republicans present voting against it. In the Senate, the bill was approved 60 to 38, pulling in just three Republican votes, allowing the package to squeak past without risk of filibuster.

Critics of the broadband part of the law have claimed the initiative would not generate jobs quickly enough, maintaining what was needed were projects that were “shovel ready”—like those in road construction. There were questions, too, about whether federal dollars would be effective in getting high-speed Internet access to rural areas. And finally, there was the issue of whether broadband even belonged in a package designed to help leverage the country out of an economic downturn.

Meanwhile, the IT community sees a different set of problems, notably more complicated than those associated with electrical service. Since the mid-1990s, the Web has provided fantastic freedoms to a wide demographic—including anonymity, alternate realities, and access to vast stores of information. If knowledge is power, then the Web has most definitely brought power to the people.

However, not all information is regarded as having equal value. Ask anyone who has tried navigating among the e-babble of what Britney or A-Rod had for breakfast to reach an email account stuffed with offers that couldn’t be read aloud to an audience that included children. The issue of who should sort the valuable from the worthless has been a bone of some contention and figured in the debate over the need to stimulate broadband adoption in rural America.

During the Senate’s consideration of the stimulus bill, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sent the network-neutrality community into high alert by introducing an amendment that would impose changes on open access as currently required on government-funded broadband networks. Her amendment proposed “reasonable network management practices” to block certain kinds of illegal content, notably child pornography and copyright infringement. The fear among advocates of network neutrality was that ISPs would employ deep packet inspection in support of this “reasonable” practice.

Deep-packet inspection not only raises privacy concerns about a practice that gathers information on Web browsing activities in a manner invisible to the target, but many see it as too blunt a tool for sorting content, and thus as unreliable for discriminating between fair use and genuine copyright infringement.

Another group that would like to help determine the content you and I are able to see: Those who want to use the Internet to sell you something. Deep-packet inspection provides a rather fine tool for sorting through a consumer’s personal Web content and targeting disposable cash or credit.

As it turns out, Feinstein’s amendment was never brought to the floor—possibly due to the Net-neutrality concerns raised by watchdog groups. But Net neutrality in any broadband build-out faces another troublesome hurdle. For the past several years public interest groups in the IT community have been losing ground in the battle to keep the Web from devolving into the hands of only a few gatekeepers.

“That’s where you try and reverse some of the practices of the last eight years,” says Art Brodsky, communications director for D.C.-based public-interest group Public Knowledge, which describes itself as “working to defend your rights in the emerging digital culture.”

The last decade has seen dramatic changes in the ISP roll call. “If you go back 10 years, I’ve got on my desk a directory of ISPs that’s 500 pages long,” Brodsky says. “The reason there are so many ISPs is that they had access to the telephone company network. You could buy a wholesale circuit, you could share lines, you could do any number of things, and the FCC eventually whittled that away to nothing so there is not a lot of competition.”

“We know where the roadblocks are,” says Brodsky. “It’s the phone companies, the cable companies, their ecosystem, and Hollywood.”

But Brodsky also takes a hopeful view that Washington might be about to limit media consolidation and other excesses among the providers, acknowledging “the same old roadblocks we’ve had for years,” but “now we have a lot more people who agree with us—and they’re in the right place.”

Broadband Done Right

Slow and inadequate Web access is a problem that can be solved technologically, even on a grand scale. When people start talking about countrywide fast access, Japan is frequently held up as the exemplar where reliably available speeds for home use are reported as high as 100Mbps. This speed comes via a national network of fiber-optic lines accounting for 45 percent of all Japanese broadband subscriptions. But this is an expensive option. Corporate expenditure needed for such infrastructure is said to make more sense in a country where cultural attitudes value long-term, even generational, benefits. Apparently, it also makes more sense where the government offers tax incentives—as it does in Japan.

When people talk about ranking countries for broadband speed and coverage, the statistics batted around are frequently those from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-Operation, or OECD, broadband-tracking website. For advertised broadband speed, according to the OECD, which describes itself as a global “source of comparable statistics, and economic and social data,” Japan logged an ear-popping 93.7Mbps average per customer in 2007 (the most recent data available).

Cabletechtalk.com, a blog site for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, ran a series of posts last year taking issue with the way the OECD measures connectivity, arguing that advertised speed may not reflect actual speed. Even given this limitation, and with the next closest competitor, France, on the chart coming in at 44Mbps, Japan still likely holds the top spot.

However, in terms of broadband penetration, Japan’s ranking is more modest, coming in at 17 out of the 30 countries last year on the ranking of broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants—two slots behind the U.S. So while Japan offers fast broadband, it doesn’t offer it to the greatest number of paid subscribers.

There might be no clear answer to “Who’s on first?” But then the real issue isn’t beating one’s neighbors, it’s getting adequate broadband service to those who need it and have never had it.

Electricity of the 21st Century

Could a broadband initiative generate jobs and increase rural service the way rural electrification did in the Tennessee Valley? Whatever arguments are leveled against the TVA, it fulfilled its original contract and continues to have a significant economic influence in the area in which it operates.

“TVA has greatly improved the quality of life in the Tennessee Valley region,” says Ezzell, the TVA historian. The project delivered electricity, which in turn “encouraged the establishment of power-using industries.” The engineering effort also resulted in a 652-mile navigable channel running from Paducah, KY, to Knoxville, TN, Ezzell adds, “The development of a navigable channel has influenced the establishment of industries employing water transportation to move raw materials, supplies, and finished products.”

Could an improved infrastructure in broadband bring jobs to rural areas and elsewhere across the U.S.? In the press coverage of the broadband debate, this topic has opened a sharp divide between those who feel we’re all part of one economy and those who figure if you can’t attract broadband service to your neighborhood, it’s not my problem.

The controversy over rural broadband build-out gave rise to the meme-able term “a cyber bridge to nowhere.” While catchy, the expression ignores the fact that there are plenty of people on the other side of that cyber bridge, and leaving them stranded is short-sighted not just for the U.S. rural population, but for the U.S. economy as a whole.

A recent NPR report quoted former FCC economist Michael Katz saying, “The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society…is misguided… from an efficiency point of view and an equity one.” But there is a fundamental inequity in restricting broadband to those places where it is convenient and profitable for third-party companies to establish it. Such an attitude limits the flow of information and education to underserved citizens. It’s hardly appropriate to expect some students to take their timed tests via dial-up service just because they don’t live in urban areas, and an anxious mother searching the Web to identify the risks of the cough medicine her child just swallowed ought to be able to get answers as quickly in the country as in the city. Further, there is a fundamental inefficiency in failing to provide the means for people to support themselves no matter where they live. High-speed Internet connections offer the rural population new opportunities to open private Internet-based businesses at minimal cost compared their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

The controversy over rural broadband build-out gave rise to the meme-able term “A Cyber Bridge to Nowhere.”

While the nod given to broadband in the most recent stimulus package is a step toward universal service, the public could use stronger recognition by Washington that IT infrastructure is part of what holds the national economy together. Some think the U.S. needs a more holistic approach toward developing its overall technological infrastructure.

“As President Obama’s broadband advisor Blair Levin has suggested, the economic stimulus package is not the full answer to America’s broadband challenge. It is just the first inning of a nine-inning game,” says Jim Bailer of the Bailer Herbst Law Group and founder of the U.S. Broadband Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy organization. Our goal, says Bailer, “is to develop consensus among the key stakeholders in America’s broadband future on a national strategy that will take the U.S. to the sixth or seventh inning.”

Bailer is clear about why the U.S. needs to start with rural broadband build-out. “Broadband is the electricity of the 21st century—the engine of economic development, global competitiveness, educational opportunity, affordable modern health care, homeland security, public safety, and on and on. When America electrified a century ago, some communities were left behind for up to 50 years. We can’t make that mistake again.”


UF1 Figure. The Electric Home and Farm Authority “Electricity for All” sketch, ca. 1940.

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