Not that long ago – less than 100 years, actually – rural citizens of American were in the dark. Literally. Electricity was limited to urban areas where economies of scale made it affordable – at least to the middle and upper-classes.
Then, along came the New Deal, with its “Socialist” programs including Social Security, TVA, banking regulation, FDIC, and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Note: it will come as no surprise that Republicans in Congress were the “party of NO” even then…. and opposed to all of these.
In a little less than two years the REA helped bring electricity to more than a million farms in forty-five states while the cost of a mile of rural electrical line had fallen by more than two-thirds, to less than $800.
Newly grid-connected rural and suburban families purchased appliances in droves, thus creating a new cadre of entrepreneurs in the electrical and plumbing trades. Agricultural productivity soared on the back of rural electrification (and mechanization), making it possible for U.S. farmers to serve a fast-growing nation’s needs.
The REA helped create a new national electrical grid, a forerunner to the Internet and the Interstate highway system; this is now widely thought to have been among the most successful examples of crisis economic policymaking.
We have another opportunity to strengthen rural communities, reduce poverty, and give our the best and brightest students reasons to stay in Alabama by encouraging economic development: affordable, reliable rural broadband.
Grady Smith, CEO of Cullman Electric Cooperative, doesn't mince words when talking about the importance of broadband:
I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that broadband service is the single most important technological issue of this generation, and that it will have the greatest impact on society since basic electricity and telephone service.
Fortunately, both our Democratic candidates for governor agree. On the flip is a short video of Congressman Artur Davis and a statement from Agriculture Commissioner, Ron Sparks.
At his recent campaign stop in Decatur, Congressman Davis answered my question about rural broadband, economic expansion, and schools with this anecdote and discussion:
His discussion of the company trying to decide whether to locate in Selma pretty much explains why the Black Belt has to rely on landfills for economic growth instead of “clean” industries and high-tech, high-skilled jobs:
“Several years ago, as Congressman, I was trying to recruit a particular industry. We were trying to get this industry to come to Selma, and they spent a lot of time in Selma soliciting this industry, dining them, and trying to get them to make a decision to invest in their community. That's ok: that's what development boards do.
We got to the day when they were set to come and make their site visit to Selma – the visit that was going to determine where or not to locate there. The leader of the site team needed to use a computer to send an important message and needed to do it instantly.
We could not find a way to get him Internet access on the little laptop that he had. We had to drive him back into downtown Selma to our Congressional office.
What do you think happened to that deal?
Rural development in 2009 is not simply bringing in a CEO and wining and dining him. It's about saying that you'll have:
- The things you need to provide the base that you need to grow economically.
Agriculture Commisisoner, Ron Sparks, was just as adamant when I spoke with him earlier on this topic:
“We have to take a bold initiative on this broadband issue. If it weren't for Mississippi we'd be realy in trouble. I think we're something like 48th in the nation when it comes to people who have computers and internet access.
This has to concern everyone because it all connects into industrial recruitment. It touches education too. Now, we've done a good job getting broadband into schools. The problems is that businesses in rural communities can't tap into it.
We need to work as fast as we can to get broadband and DSL access in rural communities. It's vital to their 911 systems, supplying state-of-the-art veterinary services, serving rural fire departments, and encouraging businesses to locate there.”
Of course, the issue here isn't as simple as saying “we need broadband… go bury some fiber optic cable.” You have big business worried about protecting profits and you have real concerns about the cost and reliability of whatever solution is chosen.
Tomorrow, I'll suggest one option that hasn't been discussed much at all, but seems like a very good option for many areas.
Here's a taste…. what if you could just plug your computer into a normal electrical outlet and be automatically connected to the Internet?
In Cullman, you can!
btw… I won't be able to tend this diary much today.
It's my BIRTHDAY and I'm knocking off to celebrate!