Closing The Digital Divide – The Democrats Do It, The Republicans Call It A Failure

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.”

If you’re used to having broadband, and the ability to choose between several providers of it, it’s hard to imagine how much the current Internet depends on people having it.  I have come up with a variation on Parkinson’s Law which says “Internet sites will expand to fill available bandwidth.”   Think about the number of graphics, the videos, the javascripts and so on that are built into most sites these days.  Even one of my “LOLCat” posts here.  Each of them contains a pretty sizable number of bytes to download, and it’s not getting any less.  The site that 15 years ago would have taken up maybe 50 to 100 kilobytes and earned some curses for being “slow” on a 28.8 modem is going to run a megabyte or more.   None of which is a big problem when you’re talking broadband.  When you’re limited to a 56K modem, it’s a big deal.  It basically means that much of the Internet becomes unusable to you.

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.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Closing The Digital Divide – The Democrats Do It, The Republicans Call It A Failure

  1. Thank you for this excellent discussion of a topic we urban/suburban types too rarely consider. When we built our home 12 years ago, we found we had moved into what seemed like an electronic dead zone. Internet access was dial-up only, and cell phone service was “go out in the back yard and hope.”

    I did and still do a lot of research, and back then that required a trip to the library. Online research often requires multiple searches and hopping from link to link, and that was too unwieldy with dial-up. We progressives should consider that before we criticize “uninformed” rural voters. It’s a whole lot easier to find reliable information with broadband internet access.

    • You’re welcome. It’s something I’ve realized for a long time, and it’s been a blind spot when it comes to the progressives. Some time back, I did a posting on BWN making two points: The first was that most progressives live in urban and suburban areas; and the second that progressives need to stop assuming they know what rural areas need, and ask them. For example, rural broadband is something that impacts me, while high-speed rail or mass transit systems don’t. Intellectually, from having lived in major cities, I understand the needs and arguments for them, but in terms of “it’s going to make life better here,” it’s a non-starter.

      • Asking people what they want from government – not only rural voters but voters in general – and actually listening to their answers is central to what we at BPI call Fred Whispering. Fred is our archetypal median voter, a moderate independent. Media studies show Fred may have the evening news on while he eats dinner, but he doesn’t watch cable news unless they’re covering some breaking event. He scans headlines online and in newspapers, but doesn’t subscribe to a newspaper or spend much time on political/news websites.

        But it’s a mistake to call Fred a “low-information voter.” Fred is a different-information voter. He gets his news from talking to friends, neighbors, people at work, people in checkout lines and waiting rooms, etc. Fred knew about the recession long before the mainstream media discussed it, and he probably knows more about what’s happening in his local community than do most “news junkies.”

        To reach Fred, progressives must participate in those face-to-face conversations – what we call Fred Whispering – and that has to start with active listening. If we want Fred’s trust, we must treat Fred with respect and listen to what he wants and needs. We will usually find Fred shares most of our moral values, and those are foundations on which we can build agreement on progressive issues and policies.

        So I agree. Telling Fred what we think he should want is a non-starter.

        • Exactly. One of the things I’ve noticed is that there’s so many assumptions. For example, all the people on DK and certain other places that “know” the best agricultural policy and what should be encouraged. If you start asking how many of them actually currently run a farm, or have working experience in farming, it turns out that the overwhelming majority have zero actual experience. They might have a garden, or they visited a farm, so that “qualifies” them. 🙄

  2. Eric

    Great article, Norbrook! Lately, many rural communities east of Portland, OR have been getting broadband internet and cell-phone towers as a direct result of the ARRA, so the stimulus has had a direct benefit on folks lives in the rural communities. Given your efforts, I have been talking to folks when I visit these communities in an effort to counter the sterotype(an all too unfortunately true one)that rural folks have of us city slickers, by observing and listening to what their local concerns are.

    • That’s what we need to do – it helps to remember that many of these areas once were the progressive ones. The thing about rural broadband is not just giving people high speed access, it’s also an infrastructure backbone for many other things.

      About 18 years ago, the healthcare and research organization I was working for started getting involved in a new effort: Telemedicine. The idea was very simple – use the Internet and other communication technologies to connect rural clinics to specialists. Since this was a rural-based institution, with clinics spread over ten counties, it was a great idea, in terms of cost-cutting and benefiting the patients. The problem right off the bat was that there was no communications infrastructure to handle it. You need high quality, high speed communications to use it effectively, and it just didn’t exist in most of the region. Which, it turned out, was where a lot of those efforts foundered. It’s a great idea to have specialists in an urban area or centralized facility who can consult with primary care providers out in the sticks, but those same areas often don’t have the communications infrastructure to do it. So you still end up with patients having to travel a couple of hours to get a consultation.

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  4. sjterrid

    Thank you for this excellent post.

  5. Temp

    Jon Stewart needs to read this post. After the SOTU, he and Jonathan Alter sat in the interview belittling some of the things Obama called for in his speech. ‘Wifi for everyone’ – ha ha ha and slightly faster trains – ha ha ha. I’m still trying to give Stewart the benefit of the doubt but I’m honestly starting to believe that “he just doesn’t get it”. What sounds trivial to him is a big f-ing deal in other parts and could have major positive impact for a long time.

    • That’s a good example of an assumption based on what they “know.” I have relatives that live in suburban or urban settings. All of them have cell phones, they have high-speed Internet, and a choice between providers. It’s “normal.” As I said, I don’t have a cell phone, because there is no service. One of the common sights around here in the summer is seeing tourists walking around with their phones desperately (and futilely) looking for a signal. My choice of high-speed Internet connection amounts to one provider, and it’s not an very high speed in terms of what some people accept as the norm. I could have a second choice if I’m willing to shell out a lot of money for a satellite connection – I know some of the local campgrounds have to use them to connect to the Internet for their work, but at the same time, it’s not a cheap alternative.

      When something is common where you live, there’s an inherent tendency to assume that the same holds true everywhere, or if it doesn’t, it’s simply a matter of choice . That there are no choices for many doesn’t register.

  6. Excellent post, Norbrook and important things we should all keep in mind as we look at the 2011 budget and other initiatives. We need to think outside our own little world and it’s “nice to haves” and consider what is a “real need” elsewhere.

    Rural high-speed Internet would not only link together important business and governmental concerns, it would broaden people’s exposure to what the rest of us take for granted. If you only have the weekly dead tree paper and what Arnie down at the general store heard from his cousin Elbert who has a daughter who watches Glenn Beck, there is no common ground to work from.

    I for one would like to remind people that rural values are actually progressive values … caring for each other because we are all in this together. Not as a platitude but as reality.