Why doesn’t the REA (rural electrification administration) model work for broadband today?

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard in 100 times – broadband expansion is the rural electrification challenge of our generation. We need an effort like the REA! Despite what my kids may think, I wasn’t around for the rural electrification effort. So while I’ve always understood the analogy, I didn’t over think it. It didn’t occur to me to ask – why doesn’t the REA model work today?

I’m glad that Steve Conn from In These Times looked at the issue…

Rural America faced an almost identical problem three-quarters of a century ago. At the start of the 1930s, only 10 percent of rural Americans had electricity in their homes and on their farms, making life needlessly difficult. In response, Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1936. Through it, federal loans were offered to rural electrical cooperatives. The co-ops were able to set up the necessary transmission lines and used their numbers to negotiate wholesale purchase agreements to buy the power.

We are seeing cooperatives starting to invest in broadband in rural areas. But expansion and upgrades are not happening as they did with the REA. Conn does asks the hard question: Why not…

Everyone knows about the high-speed internet deficit, so why hasn’t anything like a TVA for the internet been created? One answer is that Congress has been controlled by politicians who have vilified all government programs and who do not want to create new ones.

The bigger problem is that the very people who would benefit from rural broadband keep voting for those same politicians and things are even worse at the state level. Dozens of rural communities have tried to set up internet co-ops, on the model of the REA, but in response nearly two dozen states have passed laws making it nearly impossible to do so. Texas, Arkansas and Missouri, for example, have prohibited any municipal internet provider from selling the service directly to customers.

Most of these states are controlled by the same kind of anti-government legislators who run Congress and all of them have been lobbied heavily by the same telecom companies that have abandoned rural internet users. But as long as rural Americans keep sending those politicians to Washington, or to the statehouse, rural America is going to remain stuck in the dial-up age.

It’s worth thinking about. Broadband is like apple pie – no one is against it. But can we make it a priority worth investment? Can we have the patience to see expected return on investment? Research shows it will pay off:

Think about what the US would be like if the REA didn’t happen? Can we be forward thinking enough to take on the challenge for our future selves and future generations?

This entry was posted in Policy, Rural by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

7 thoughts on “Why doesn’t the REA (rural electrification administration) model work for broadband today?

  1. This requires a national policy change that recognizes:
    1. Telecom infrastructure is vital and its modernization for the digital age should be a national priority.
    2. The nation is many years behind where it should be relative to telecom infrastructure modernization due to policy failures and poor planning.
    3. The nation cannot rely on the privately owned, vertically integrated model of telecom infrastructure and must support and fund alternative models of ownership and operation including public ownership and open access infrastructure.

  2. I agree with the article and the comment from Eldo. A significant difference is the loss of rural political power due to the greatly reduced percentage of population in rural areas. The priorities of those elected from rural areas must shift to meaningful rural investment from whatever they are now.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comments! They remind me that some people are afraid of technology. It’s a game changer. Technology has reduced and/or significantly changed jobs everywhere – manufacturing, farming, mining. It has toppled local economies; it changes the status quo. I think folks don’t realize or don’t want to realize that technology is going to happen with or without rural areas. The question is can rural areas continue without technology?

    Technology is scary like the high dive – except the consequences of not jumping are more serious. And it’s not only the infrastructure. People need to learn how to use it. The communities that do embrace technology will thrive. The communities and leaders who choose not to make it a priority do so to their own detriment.

    • The underlying technology of telecommunications has changed over the past 20 years and continues to change from analog to digital and Internet protocol. The problem is over those past two decades, America’s telecommunications infrastructure has lagged behind that shift and has not been modernized from legacy metallic outside plant to fiber to the premise plant to accommodate it.

      This technology transition has nothing to do with any perceived fear on the part of end users and supports familiar services like video and voice that existed for decades as well as for data to support web apps and email. Going from analog to digital and IP is simply a change in the underlying engine and that powers video content and telecommunications and provides far more options than the old analog engine.

    • Oh you are right! It’s definitely the technology! BUT policy makers seem wary of making decisions or at least wary of making decisions to fund telecom infrastructure because they fear that the technology will change again and require more investment. Or even worse that a cheaper and better technology will come along after an investment has been made.
      And some voters seem hesitant to support it for the same reason – coupled with a fear of what increasing technology might mean to their jobs. As technology increases the opportunities for some jobs, it reduces the need for others. That can be exciting or scary, depending on where you sit.

  4. There is a consensus that fiber optic telecom technology isn’t under threat of obsolescence short of something like the quantum subspace channel — which for now remains science fiction.

    Information and communications technology has indeed been advancing rapidly over the past two decades. The rate of proliferation and adoption suggest there’s no going back and we thus need to construct the modern infrastructure to support it. It’s clear that we cannot rely on the subscription-based vertically integrated business models of the legacy telephone and cable companies to do that quickly enough to accommodate skyrocketing demand. Ditto newer entrants like Google Fiber. They simply don’t have enough patient capital needed needed relative to the scope and timeframe of the task.

    • Thank you! I’m going to just repeat what you have said…

      “There is a consensus that fiber optic telecom technology isn’t under threat of obsolescence short of something like the quantum subspace channel — which for now remains science fiction.”

      I think folks cannot hear that often enough!

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