Crawford Identifies Historic Parallel Between Electricity and Fiber

Susan Crawford recently wrote for the Blog of the Roosevelt Institute, where she spent the last year as a Fellow. She draws on the history of electrification to remind us that the impasse we have in expanding great access to the Internet to everyone is not a novel problem.

Crawford emphasizes the similarities between the electrification of rural America in the 1930s and the need for ubiquitous high-speed Internet access today. Crawford sees an almost identical reality as she compares the world of broadband and the attitude toward electricity in the 1930s:

In 1920 in America, unregulated private companies controlled electricity. The result? 90 percent of farmers didn't have it, at the same time that all rich people in New York City did. And it was wildly expensive in many places. Although it's now considered an essential input into everything we do, at the time electricity was seen as a luxury; the companies served the rich and big businesses, and left everyone else out.

Crawford notes that in the '30s, it was strong and thoughtful leadership that led the charge to turn the lights on in rural America. It ws not inevitable - it took the hard work of many people dedicated to a better tomorrow. In fact, the Rural Electrification Administration was created only after many states had already created their own electrification programs, creating valuable lessons for those that came after.

As many of our readers know, local authority in one state after another has fallen to the armies of lobbyists recruited by AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and others at the top of the telecommunications heap. South Carolina and California recently joined the list of states where the legislature abandoned the public interest in favor of a few corporate interests.

Today, the U.S. is falling far behind when it comes to the 21st century version of electrification: the country's upgrade to fiber connectivity, the global standard. Although our U.S. telephone system was the envy of the world when it was built, and served every American at a reasonable price, we're apparently unable to think of fiber as a utility. We've seen enormous consolidation and monopolization of both wired and wireless access in America by the companies to which we've entrusted our daily lives of information. This isn't good for any part of American society, and it is, or should be, a truly bipartisan issue.

It's also, like electricity, both a local and a national issue. There are bright spots across the country where communities are coming together to commission fast, cheap fiber networks. We need to make it possible for every community to make that choice. That will require federal legislation to block state laws that lock up localities and keep them in the incumbents' hands. We need to make sure that there are rules in place to protect competition and allow for oversight at the federal level as well.

Finally, it's an urgent issue. Right now, a tsunami of state-level deregulation is sweeping the country. Right now, Verizon is telling the D.C. Circuit that it is a First Amendment "speaker" and that therefore any regulation of its activities is unconstitutional. Right now, the regional cable monopolies are buying up former competing telecom companies, strengthening their grip on wired access across the country.

Crawford steps back and issues a reminder of what is truly at stake:

Think about that: they want to give the richest and most powerful companies in our country even more riches and more power to serve as gatekeepers over everything we do. To harvest us. And at the same time, they want to make sure that basic high-speed infrastructure isn't a priority for the country. Their vision is simple: "Communicating is a luxury for the rich." I don't think that's right, and most of our peer nations don't either.

Nonetheless, she is hopeful and she has good reason to be. We are not so far behind we can't catch up. We encounter regular instances of cities and towns surpassing the status quo with their own community owned networks. We see the economic development that frequently follows. 

From FDR in 1935:

"All work undertaken should be useful — not just for a day, or a year, but useful in the sense that it affords permanent improvement in living conditions or that it creates future new wealth for the Nation."

We have to take a long view when building these networks. Though our children will undoubtedly laugh at how lame our mobile phones were, they will almost certainly be using the fiber-optic cable we put in the ground today.