What Rural Broadband Can Learn from Rural Electrification
Throughout the early 20th century, electricity in America spread. Progress was slow, with only about half of US homes with power by 1930--but it was revolutionary. Electrification not only brought accessible lighting, but access to a plethora of new technologies, serving as a baseline for many future innovations.
Rural America was particularly challenging, since communities in this area tend to be remote. Private companies did not want to venture into the countryside, with its smaller population and economies. Many rural communities remained without electricity well into the 20th century, inhibiting advances in business, education and modern home life.
Today, broadband in rural America has similar challenges and consequences. Private companies, like AT&T or Verizon, aren’t able to invest the same resources in broadband development, as in urban areas. Many parts of rural America remain without accessible internet, hindering advances in quality of life and economy.
The Rural Revolution
In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA)--a federal body which would, essentially, revolutionize rural America. Rather than investing in expensive and complicated rural power systems, the REA granted loans to existing electric co-ops. This allowed rural communities to build their own systems, creating basic capabilities that private companies could build on.
By 1950, 90% of homes in rural America had electricity--as opposed to the 10% in 1932. Rural America was no longer lagging behind its urban counterparts. Remote did not mean underdeveloped.
The US government is currently piloting similar programs to address rural broadband challenges. The ReConnect America Fund, a cornerstone program of the Rural Utilities Service (the current day REA--and one of our clients here at Corner Alliance), furnishes loans and grants to improve rural America’s broadband infrastructure. Rural businesses, tribes, municipalities and cooperatives may apply for the funding, giving some of the country’s most disadvantaged areas the chance to close their digital divide.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is also providing funding--and $20.4 billion of it. In early April the FCC announced its plan to help bring high-speed, mobile access to rural communities in the US, awarding $2 billion in subsidies per year, over ten years, to build a physical infrastructural for broadband throughout rural America. The goal is to connect up to 4 million rural homes and businesses.
While the electrification and broadband model may be different, the goal is quite similar: to improve the quality of life in rural areas, bringing these communities up to speed with urban areas. The government wants to help bridge the rural-urban divide, fostering economic growth in parts of the country that, without modern day technology, could not prosper.
So, given rural electrification’s success, and its stark similarities with rural broadband, how can we ensure history repeats itself--in a good way? What key lessons can rural broadband learn from rural electrification?
Lessons from Rural Electrification, for Rural Broadband
Lesson #1: Getting rural America up to speed matters--big time. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who campaigned for the REA and helped get the initiative off the ground, said it best: "From the point of view of raising the living standards of rural America and providing a more efficient form of farm management, one of the most important projects...is the extension of rural electrification."
Roosevelt understood how essential electrification was for rural America--and the country as a whole. It was connected to everything: home, work and school. Farmers, who made up a large part of rural workers, could innovate their equipment, improving efficiency and boosting their earnings. Schools could also operate more efficiently, and were prepared for future electricity-dependent technologies. At home, sanitation and heating improved. People were healthier and more inclined to stay in rural areas.
Sonny Perdue, the Secretary of Agriculture, noted rural broadband as holding a similar weight: “High speed internet e-connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity.”
Broadband, like electricity, is essential for modern agriculture. It allows farmers and ranchers to follow commodity markets, communicate with customers and access new markets around the world. It’s also mandatory for higher level business strategy work, like data collection and analysis.
At home, broadband gives people quicker access to more robust pools of information, and allows other internet-based devices to function more effectively. Broadband technology also accelerates and broadens access to healthcare, government services and educational opportunities.
Lesson #2: Investment from the federal government could be make or break.
Over the period of 15-20 years, Roosevelt’s REA helped bring the amount of rural homes with electricity from 10% to around 90%. This was due, in large part, to the federal government’s financial support of rural electric co-ops. This both generated rapid growth, as well as empowered people in rural communities to own the process.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, 39% of rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service, as compared to only 4 percent of urban americans.
And, according to a 2017 USDA report, nearly 30% of US farms have no access to internet at all. These figures highlight the strong need for federal programs, like the RUS’ ReConnect America fund, to increase these percentages and empower broadband growth.
Like rural electrification, who has also little investment from private companies, federal backing could mean the difference between continued disconnection, and rapid re-connection for rural America.
Lesson #3: Communities need instruction and support.
USDA’s RUS just finished up its round of ReConnect Workshops, where agency representatives traveled throughout rural America to coach communities on broadband expansion and how to apply to the program. RUS hosted workshops in rural Alabama, Oregon, and Minnesota, among others. They have also hosted a series of technical assistance webinars, to help potential applicants gain a better understanding of the application process and program requirements.
The Rural Electrification Administration followed a similar strategy. Throughout the programs’ implementation, the REA hired advisors to travel to rural communities and teach people how to operate and maintain equipment. They not only invested in electricity’s physical infrastructure, but it’s long-term educational infrastructure, too. This helped ensure the technology was used in ways to best benefit the community, maximizing its potential.
Rural communities need instruction and support well past simply handing them a new technology. To realize success, a larger infrastructure of support must be built.
Like rural electrification, a rural revolution is in order, for broadband. Drawing from key lessons, like the ones listed above, can help federal leaders build upon wisdom gained in past years. With growing support from both RUS and the FCC, we are bound to see major changes in broadband access and infrastructure in rural America--it is just a matter of time.
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