One of the constant attacks that Republicans like to make is on the stimulus bill. Never mind that the states they came from benefited from it, and they were more than happy to take any chance to pose with a giant check when it came to projects funded by it. They like to claim that it was a “failure.” Of course, in their ideology, private industry would do it much better and faster. Which nicely ignores the number of times that private industry doesn’t bother to do something. Which is why this article on the stimulus funding for rural broadband struck such a chord with me.
“Without the stimulus, the private sector would not have been able to do this and the state would not have been able to develop its plans to push higher-capacity fiber connections out into our most rural areas,” Shannon said.
I live in a rural area. Very rural. Many of the things that urban and suburban people take “for granted” aren’t available, as they often find out when they come here on vacation. I had my own re-education on that point 20 years ago. I’d just gotten out of the military, and moved back home. I found a new job about an hour from there, and started the search for a new place. After I found one, that was when the shock came, by doing something simple: Getting a telephone line. I’d been stationed in urban areas, and I was used to getting asked a number of questions about “extras” when it came to telephone service. What I didn’t expect was what I was asked: “Do you want a 2-party or a 4-party line?” That’s right. In 1991, the area I was moving to didn’t have single lines. Not only that, they didn’t have touch tone service, either. It wasn’t until 3 years later that they managed to put in touch tone, and it wasn’t until 7 years later that the party lines went away. A local ISP? Not until 1996, and even then, it wasn’t a very good ISP. The only reason I was able to get cable television was that the main cable connecting two towns happened to run right across my property – I had neighbors who couldn’t get it.
Although I now live and work in a different part of the state, in many ways, the situation hasn’t changed. Many of the things that most people take for granted aren’t available here. I don’t have a cell phone, because there are no cell towers here. It would be a complete waste of money to have one. Wireless access points? None, although the local library is talking about possibly installing one. We do have cable television, with a whopping 25 channels to choose from. High speed Internet? That, we got 5 years ago. It’s not “broadband” as most people think of it these days, although it fits the technical definition. Up until then, it was dial-up only, which is why I understand this:
In the Depression, it was power to the people — for farm equipment and living-room lamps, cow-milking machines and kitchen appliances. Now, it’s online access — to YouTube and digital downloads, to videoconferencing and Facebook, to eBay and Twitter.
“Rural areas all across the country are wrestling with this, somewhat desperately,” said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. “Young people who grow up with the media will not live where they can’t be connected to digital culture. So most rural communities have been behind the eight ball.”
Yet today, the Internet is a necessity. Businesses, government, education, healthcare all use the Internet as part of their functioning. But large areas of the country must do without many of those capabilities, often the areas that would most benefit from having them. That is what is meant when people talk about the “digital divide.” It’s not just poor people in the inner cities, it’s also those who live in rural areas. The reality is that if – as conservatives say – we wait for the private market to provide it, it won’t happen at all. There simply is no money to be made from it. That those people have just as much a need for Internet access is irrelevant to private business. If I can run a mile of cable for a certain cost, and connect several hundred to several thousand people to it, I can make money. If I run the equivalent mile of cable and can only connect one family, the cost will never be recovered.
Which is where – and why – government programs like this are necessary. It ensures that all citizens can receive access to what is a basic utility. In the 1930’s, the government started a large program – the Rural Electrification Administration. Urban areas had electricity, while rural areas did not. It wasn’t considered to be economically feasible. Because of this program, large areas of the country received electricity – including wiring of houses – and later on, telephone service as added to the program. Today, people don’t remember that there once was no “of course” when it came to electricity or phone services in this country. Access to those are considered necessities in today’s society. But it was only with government subsidies and programs that it became possible. High speed Internet service is today is in the same position electricity was in the 1930’s. Available to a large number of people – even the majority of the population – as long as they live in an urban region. Outside of that, it’s either spotty or non-existent. Without government help, it wouldn’t happen, but thanks to the stimulus funding, it is.
That’s the difference between philosophies. Conservatives would have you believe that government subsidies are always a waste of money, that private industry should be left alone. If they had had their way, many of them would still be lighting their houses with oil lamps. Progressives recognize that there are long-term benefits which come from subsidizing these projects, many of them that were not thought of when it was first started. Today, in this country there’s a digital divide. Broadband Internet is a necessity in today’s society, and there’s large areas without it. Democrats are doing something about it, but the Republicans are calling it a failure.