Back in the early years of the 20th century, as cities were starting to get electrical power, that was the problem: only cities were getting electrical power. City clustering of homes and multi-family dwellings made for a lot of customers per mile of wire strung, and the payback to the electric companies came quickly.
Cities rapidly became hubs of commerce as factories got power to run machines. That attracted workers from the countrysides to fill jobs created in those factories, which brought more customers into the cities for the electric companies; business boomed. (And cities became crowded and dirty, in part thanks to dirty power generating facilities, many of which competed with each other.)
Out in the rural parts of the country, “electrification” went slowly, if at all. Rural residents were forced into makeshift solutions, like windmills to charge a battery to provide a little light after sundown. And while cities got new jobs, the rural areas of the country were left behind — much further behind Europe, which was working a lot harder to wire up the countrysides. (By 1934, almost 90 percent farms in Germany and France had electricity, vs 11 percent in the U.S.)
That started to change in 1935, with FDR’s creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (now the Rural Utilities Service, managed by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture). From one side of their mouths, electric companies argued that it wasn’t profitable enough to serve rural homesteads (even though power rates were about four times what they were in the cities), while out of the other side of their mouths they complained about the REA, saying the government had “no right to compete” with them (or regulate them) by helping co-ops bring power to rural areas.
Within four years, the REA brought power to 288,000 households. And in 1949, the REA was expanded to bring telephone service to rural America, for the same reasons (and against the same objections).
That Was Then, This is Now
Now, early in the 21st century, there’s a similar problem in rural parts of the U.S. Cities have broadband Internet, but it’s much more lacking in rural areas — including where I live.
When I moved to western Colorado, I started with a satellite Internet connection. It sucked, thanks to the lag time of bouncing my signal off a satellite 22,300 miles above me. The “round-trip light-time” to go that far is about a half second … for … every … command … or … handshake … request. Considering getting just one email takes several such handshake/pings/command trips back and forth, that’s several seconds per email, multiplied by the 200-300 emails I get, and it adds up. (And don’t even ask about web surfing!)
Many of you can relate, I’m sure.
Now I use a ridiculously complex scheme to get online: Rube Goldberg would be proud! But it beats my interim solution: paying $535 per month for a T-1 line (1.54 Mbps each way), which these days is a pretty narrow pipe for “broad”band! I could afford to pay that when ad space in True cost $700, during the “dotcom craze.” That was then, this is now.
The result is in the U.S., where the Internet was invented, is falling way behind other countries. We’re not even in the Top 10 of per capita utilization of broadband, so this is far from just a “rural problem.”
The Netherlands is on top in broadband penetration, with 38.5 percent of inhabitants having broadband. They’re followed by Switzerland, Denmark, Korea, Norway, France, Iceland, the U.K., Germany and Sweden, to round out the Top 10. The U.S. is currently 15th (up from 19th in 2008), at 27.3 percent, following Luxembourg, Belgium, Canada, and Finland. Oh, if only the U.S. were as high tech as Korea! (Source: OECD, June 2011)
So where do high-tech businesses choose to locate? Not in western Colorado — unless you’re a one-man shop, and even then it’s pretty frustrating. When I moved here, I didn’t even consider trying to use online services in Colorado, let alone the Western Slope, and I’m just a small business. I contract for email servers in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and web servers in Michigan.
Where does that leave rural communities? It’s not just a problem to get online at all, but where are the jobs going? Again not to rural areas, but the cities, where businesses can get reliable fiber optic online services. I can’t blame them for going to cities where they could get power in the 1920s, and I can’t blame them for going to cities where they can get bandwidth now.
But think about it: with the U.S. being 15th, maybe it won’t be U.S. cities that will be attracting great “information economy” jobs. (Readers outside the U.S. just started to smile.)
But do you know what’s really galling to me? When Qwest (now “Century Link”) put a new telephone cable in my road some years back, they proudly announced it had fiber optics built in. Fantastic! Well, no: a decade later, it’s still “dark fiber” — it’s not being used. They have the capability to bring broadband to me and all of my neighbors, but they have refused to do it. I’m sure they’d point at government regulations as a problem, and it could well be. Meanwhile, I feel lucky when my 3 Mbps connection stays up for a full 24 hours without interruption. Sheesh.
What can be done when someone is motivated — and in a high-density city? A year ago I heard about a new apartment building in Hong Kong, where they were offering 1 Gbps Internet connections. Not for the building, for each apartment! I’m content with 3 Mbps (when it works), and they’re getting 1,000 Mbps. Almost makes me want to move.
There is, at least, hope on the horizon: the Federal Communications Commission announced this fall they are “reforming” its Universal Service Fund (which brought telephone service to rural parts of the country) into the “Connect America Fund” to bring broadband. It promises to expand broadband to 7 million Americans and create a half-million rural jobs …over six years! The fund shift starts in January, but how long until the money starts flowing to upgrade systems? I hear 2014 at the earliest.
I fear it’s too little, too late. But, I guess, it’s a start….
(Note: About the time this was written, Qwest was being bought out by Century Link, and later the Qwest brand was mostly dropped.)