It is neither hyperbole nor political pandering when Southwest Washington’s new congressional representative says her home internet connection comes from a cellphone tower. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez is like many rural residents when it comes to securing reliable access to the web.
Internet access should not be considered a luxury; it is an essential part of modern life, crucial to students doing homework or parents filing their taxes or consumers shopping for products and services. But many Americans – typically, but not exclusively, in rural areas — often are left scrambling for a signal that can be slow at best.
The situation represents not only how rural residents long have been regarded as an afterthought by policymakers, but how the United States long has ignored basic infrastructure investment.
Now, as detailed in a recent report by Crosscut, advocates for widespread broadband internet access see some hope. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, includes $42 billion for the expansion of internet services to underserved areas. Writes Crosscut: “Unlike previous federal subsidies, the most ambitious single deployment of federal resources yet will flow through state governments, which are encouraged to prioritize open-access networks, a policy intended to ensure competition.”
In many ways, the situation echoes the electrification of the United States during the 1930s. While populated areas had enjoyed reliable electricity for decades, many rural areas were left wanting; although electricity had become a necessary modern amenity, it was not profitable for private companies to expand service to sparsely populated locales.
Depression-era federal intervention helped rectify that shortcoming – as much out of a desire to create jobs as to provide electricity to those left in the dark. Examples: The Bonneville Power Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which transformed the lives of countless people.
As Crosscut explains, in the 1930s, public utility districts arose in Washington to help provide electricity: “At that time, rural communities lacked the legal authority to form public utilities, and it took a statewide ballot measure, passed in 1930, to pave the way for public electricity. Internet service has followed a similar trajectory.”
In creating economies of scale, relying on private businesses and the free market is not always the most efficient approach. Government intervention and oversight can be more cost-effective when dealing with an essential service that must be extended to every resident in every corner of the land. For a recent example, consider the failures of Texas’ privately managed electrical grid.
Of course, a lack of internet access is not limited to rural families. As Biden said during an appearance on Martin Luther King Jr. Day: “We’re going to make sure that every community has access to affordable high-speed internet so no parent has to drive to a McDonald’s parking lot to have their kid sign in for a connection to be able to do their homework. And, by the way, it’s going to create millions of jobs in the meantime.”
Therein lies the key to infrastructure investment. It not only generates projects that improve the lives of everyday Americans, but it puts Americans to work in creating those improvements.
Reliable broadband service for all Americans should be a priority. When even a congresswoman cannot get an up-to-date internet connection in her home, the United States has a problem.