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:
- SNG finds that ROI for broadband in rural Minnesota is $10 for every $1 spent
- Roberto Gallardo finds that if everyone had and used broadband in the US there would be an annual boost in the US economy of $22.5 billion.
- Internet Innovation Alliance finds that homes with broadband save $11,219 a year.
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?