Tubes for the Sticks

Published on Author Christopher Fahey19 Comments
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In his Time Magazine Person of the Year interview, Barack Obama said “it turns out there’s some spending that has to be done on information technology, for example, that we can do very swiftly.”

If recent speeches by the new President are any sign, I sure hope he’s talking about rural broadband access. Like many others, I don’t think we can be complacent about America’s lagging IT infrastructure, and for a good many reasons.

Some aren’t so sure, however, at least about the rural part of that equation. My friend Adam Greenfield is a well-known advocate for humane connectedness through pervasive urban digital infrastructure (I know “advocate” is not the right word — Adam’s work is equal parts caution and possibility).

From near-term omnipresent wireless broadband to a futuristic cloud of RFID gizmos mediating our social and municipal interactions, the vision of living a seamless networked experience using benevolent technology seems both exciting and inevitable.

And, by all accounts, this will happen most noticeably using the city street as the primary test and launch platform. The urban environment is the easiest and most logical place to implement this vision since the “last mile” (moving information from the big pipes that cross the globe to the little pipes that lead into our homes and mobile devices) will always be an costly obstacle, and since so many people can be reached in a small physical area.

But another friend, David Sleight, opened my eyes to another perspective — the view from the country. Although David is currently a Manhattanite, his family roots are in the woods of upstate New York where for many the idea of getting even regular ol’ wired high speed access to the information superhighway is still an impossibility. David loves the country and would, all things being equal, prefer to live there, but for him urban living is quite simply a necessity for a career in the information and technology economy.

And all things simply aren’t equal.

Millions of Americans still live in rural environments where broadband Internet access is not even an option (except through unreliable and expensive satellite connections). Much of the nation is still unserved by 3G, Edge, or even mobile voice access at all. Living in the country pretty much excludes you from participation in the aforementioned technology economy.

So this is what I hope (and predict) Obama is talking about: Bringing the Internet — the *real* Internet, not the dial-up Web 1.0 of 1998 — to the millions of Americans currently living without it. I’m not just talking about high-bandwidth experiences like Flickr, YouTube, and Hulu. I’m talking about the less-glamourous low-bandwidth experiences that happen every day on the Internet: co-workers exchanging PowerPoint decks, transferring medical records to rural clinics and hospitals, downloading hundreds of emails from friends and family, people debating politics on blogs and message boards, or even just regular everyday surfing through dozens of websites without waiting endlessly for them to load.

Some will argue the current situation isn’t so bad given the disproportionally rural residency of our country when compared to broadband leaders like South Korea, Denmark, or Iceland. Some even argue that people in the country don’t really need or even want broadband access.

I don’t buy either of these arguments. I don’t think we should settle for inequality just because we’re a less urbanized nation than our global competitors. What’s more, I really don’t think people who lack access to technology have any idea about the user experience they are missing. It’s not like we’re talking about force feeding cable TV to the Amish here.

Some, like Adam, might say that people who choose to live in the country have by definition chosen to live a technologically backwards (and, importantly, increasingly unsustainable) existence. That the responsible and ethical choice for any modern human is to live somewhere easily and affordably accessible by wires and roads and mass transit (and food and water), in an economically-efficient and environmentally-benign way — i.e., what cities do best.

I find this argument immensely appealing. But I, too, happen to love oceans, forests, lakes, and mountains almost as much as I love the city. I often entertain a fantasy of living at least part of my life in a beautiful, remote rural setting. Perhaps this fantasy is selfish and wasteful, but I also wonder if ever information technology finally replaces the combustion engine as the primary medium of human economic activity could we not, in fact, flatten this ethical disparity a little and make rural life a little more appealing to those of us who want to leave a slighter carbon footprint?

Want vs. Need

Is supporting rural broadband, then, merely a way to make urbanists’ retirements more luxurious, or to explore an impossible utopian future? Is this a matter of want or need?

I’ve never thought that we should cease to push the boundaries of our science and technology in order to ensure that more down-to-earth and pressing needs are met. We need to find a cure for cancer and land a person on Mars, for example. They’re both noble goals.

And although I am deeply critical of its implementation, I never really opposed the One Laptop Per Child project on principle, nor did I ever think that the money would be better spent directly on food or medicine. We need both experimental and conventional programs.

Broadband for rural America should be seen as a “great work” project, like the Internet itself, whose benefits may take years to be fully realized.

In short, we should be investing in technology for everyone, in cities and provinces. Clearly we should pursue subsidized free public WiFi for densely concentrated urban areas, transit systems, and public facilities — it’s the cheapest way per capita to bring our citizens and our economy to where they inevitably want and need to be. But we should also invest in the likely-far-costlier enterprise of bringing broadband and digital cellular access to people in the country: those who can’t walk to a corner Starbucks, who don’t ride a subway, and who can’t possibly use some cool iPhone app to find a great Korean barbecue only a few blocks away.

Economic Benefits

So why do this? Well, most convincingly there is the economic argument: Can it hurt to have tens of millions more people shopping online, consuming online media, opening vast opportunities for information and education and, most importantly, enabling millions to participate in a future of information-based labor through rurally-situated technology industries, telecommuting and self-employment? Can one argue against having as many people (Americans, if you’re patriotic :-) ) as possible learning to use and navigate what will undoubtedly be the primary medium for any future world economy?

This is a matter of global competitiveness. America has fallen from 4th to 17th in the world in broadband penetration. The US began our critical interstate highway system in the 1950s — 20 years after Germany began building their autobahn network. We shouldn’t once again wait until we are two decades behind to do this.

Social Benefits

Beyond of the plain economics of it, I also can’t help but to advocate this idea as a matter of sociopolitical principal: It does harm to the group psyche to perpetuate a have/have not culture, where one cohort is participating in the emerging cultural and economic hegemony and another is excluded. The free market alone cannot make this happen any more than it could bring about universal education, the interstate highway system, or the Internet. This will take government action.

But it’s more than a simple question of fairness to me. As long as rural America is kept in the slow lane with respect to access to information and culture, the more they will feel isolated and resentful of the mainstream “connected culture”, viewing them, incorrectly, as out of touch elites. They will then, I fear, vote regressively and conservatively. I’ll admit this thinking may be a matter of unjustified faith in certain (liberal) ideals, but I actually believe that exposure to diverse ideas and people, combined with full and equal participation in a healthy economy, produces, in general, increased social tolerance, better education, and cultural and intellectual progress. Wisdom, peace, and prosperity through connectedness.

Perhaps best of all, wouldn’t broadband for the sticks enable an actual reversal of the polarization of our culture, ending the “The Big Sort” phenomenon where conservatives and liberals are increasingly locating themselves in self-segregated homogenous counties. Hell, decent Internet access might make life in the country attractive to snobby urban sophisticates who might otherwise find the boondocks economically and culturally untenable. If I can meet city clients online and connect with city friends online, why do I need to live in the city?

Ultimately if you like to walk to the store to buy food, if you like bright lights and hustle and bustle, if you enjoy bumping into hundreds of interesting and diverse people every day, then no amount of broadband access will draw you from your urban world. You can certainly count me in that camp. But I can’t bring myself to simply write off non-urban America to a life of electronic destitution and information poverty — their deprivation does affect my happiness. We’re all too closely connected to let the digital divide continue to grow.

19 Responses to Tubes for the Sticks

  1. Why should we subsidize energy-inefficient, low-density lifestyles, Chris, when we should be doing just the opposite – i.e., incentivizing high-density urban infill?

    Let the countryside be what it is, in other words. And let cities do what they were, in some sense, designed to do: concentrate opportunities for conviviality and exchange.

  2. I guess my only answer to that is that while city and country mice can certainly live apart physically, we still have to live together under the same economy and under the same government. And as such maybe we can’t afford to have country dwellers living in a technological dark age dragging the whole society down economically, politically, and culturally.

  3. AG: w.r.t. sprawl I think there’s a somewhat useful distinction between suburban areas and rural areas. Suburbs are comprised of people who could be living in cities, and they already do okay with internet access. It’s the rural areas that really need the help I think.

    And I think a lot of rural living can’t be categorized as energy-inefficient, because they do jobs that can’t be done anywhere else, most obviously farming.

    Chris: As for subsidizing internet in rural areas, the problem remains the local telecoms, who fight these efforts tooth-and-nail because they see it as their way to make money, and then the government one day decides to step in and give it away for free. See the actions of Verizon in Pennsylvania, for example …

  4. “Farming” isn’t the same as “rural living,” Francis. The overwhelming majority of farming, at least in the US, is conducted at industrial scale, on Fordist principles requiring very little human intervention.

    If anything, contemporary farming is more destructive of the rural lifestyle, with its virtues of connection to the Earth and the seasons, than just about anything else I can think of. A far healthier model for farming would be one involving smaller scales and shorter distances from the metropolitan areas that serve as catchment basins for its production, a side effect of which would be little need for a massive rural-networking intervention along the lines contemplated here.

    It’s not so much that I don’t think that fast network infrastructure should be part of the new Administration’s stimulus plan: I clearly do. Where I disagree is in thinking there should be any particular emphasis on what (we urbanists perceive to be) the needs of rural America.

    While I may not, in my heart of hearts, disagree that rural culture is a pernicious influence on the national political discourse (Chris’s “dragging the whole society down economically, politically, and culturally”), we have no evidence whatsoever that network access changes any of the qualities about that culture that make it pernicious. You can lead a horse to water, etc.

  5. You’re arguing as if broadband is being purposefully withheld, but the actual problem seems to be its just too expensive, and companies can’t recover their costs at what we would call ‘reasonable’ rates. If a community of 1000 people wants to pony up the millions to have a cable laid to them, theres certainly no sinister black hand thats going to come down and prevent that.

    What you really seem to be arguing is that broadband is a public good, and so should be subsidized so everyone can have it cheaply. I think this is a very, very difficult case to make, given that many rural homes don’t even have public water(they use wells) or public roads(unpaved dirt roads).

    This “I know whats best for you better than you do” approach to spending millions (certainly not lowering any carbon footprints) to give people something they have said they don’t necessarily want seems like a terrible form of paternalism.

  6. @AG: Regarding evidence, yeah, I’ll admit that there is likely little to no proof that network access begets anything positive at all. Neither, I assume, is there evidence that bringing running water or electricity to the sticks has helped the culture as a whole economically or intellectually. I nonetheless suspect it’s true.

    @hegemonicon: I am not at all arguing that internet access is being purposefully withheld, and in fact in your very next paragraph you contradict your own accusation and put your finger right on my real argument: That this initiative is not supportable through the traditional free market and must be government subsidized. I’m not sure why you are pointing that out as I am being quite transparent about that.

    I am being paternalistic, but so were the people who built the highway system, the phone system, and the electrical grid that form the backbone of our economy. None of these would have been possible if not for immense government spending (and immense private spending, too).

    Piping broadband to rural homes is a hell of a lot easier than piping water or building roads. If they’ve got electricity and telephones, they can very likely get broadband of some kind. I’m not arguing that we need to do this for *everyone*, and I’m not arguing the federal government has to pay for it entirely — if it costs a billion dollars to bring broadband to a town of 100 people living 500 miles from any urban area and whose primary income is, say, fishing, well I can see us drawing a line there. But there are millions of Americans who live in far less remote but still underserved rural areas who could more economically benefit from this, and there are mechanisms where federal dollars would only be put to use where private and local dollars were also being put up. We don’t actually have to choose between the polar opposites of laissez-faire and command-and-control.

    Finally, when people say they don’t want it, I frankly think they are wrong about what they say they want (consumer research quite often produces false estimations of consumer desires). I can imagine people with no access preferring to remain that way, but people with slow access who don’t want faster access? They must be assuming there is a hidden cost or a cultural stigma attached to the increased speed.

  7. As someone who has lived in a Rural setting, with well water and dirt roads, I would say that there is a definite need for broadband access in rural America.

    There are some who live in rural America that have no desire for broadband Internet but, from my experience, there is a growing majority that realizes they need fast access to the Internet in order to be competitive in the job market.

    While I currently live in a city, with all the access that provides, my parents still live in a broadband dead zone with incredibly expensive Satellite access the only possibility. It is my hope to move back to the country to raise my own family and I know that high speed Internet access will be a necessity for my personal and business use.

    In short, there must be some push to bring broadband internet access to rural America. Unfortunately, from what I have seen first-hand, the people who have received Government funds for these projects so far have been grossly unfit to accomplish the goal.

    Until we can have more competent companies working to provide this access, using current and emerging technologies such as mesh networking, I’m afraid that no amount of money is going to solve the problem.

  8. “I can’t bring myself to simply write off non-urban America to a life of electronic destitution and information poverty — their deprivation does affect my happiness. We’re all too closely connected to let the digital divide continue to grow.”

    Right on! Where do urbanites think their electric power comes from, their food, the materials for their houses? What “pernicious influence” are people referring to?

    Thanks for addressing this topic. Can anyone tell me of a community “in the sticks” that’s said it doesn’t want broadband?

    (PS to AG — “Conviviality and exchange” aren’t limited to cities. You should get out more.

  9. Hrm, I didn’t realize that the telephone system had been nationalized. Wikipedia is my friend.

    Though I still think your making some pretty bold assumptions about what people want and don’t want, looking at it in terms of a national communication infrastructure makes it alot clearer that you’re right about this.

    You’ve changed someone’s mind on the internet. A winner is you.

  10. @hegemonicon: I’m not sure I’ve ever done that before! :-)

    The nationalization of the phone system lasted only one year (1918-1919), but from then on the system was regulated extensively, including specific provisions to control pricing for rural areas.

    And yeah, I should be clear that the social benefits I speak of are quite possibly a stretch… and they should be considered at best merely icing on the much larger cake of positive national economic impact.

  11. Julie –

    Where do urbanites think their electric power comes from, their food, the materials for their houses? What “pernicious influence” are people referring to?

    Arrant nonsense, except for food. You of all people should know that rural populations, at least in the United States, are heavily subsidized by those of us who live in the cities. Your hospitals, your education and social services, your power, communications and transportation infrastructure, your very lifestyle would all be unsustainable without external support.

    I’m not saying that there may not be sound and eminently wise reasons for that support, but let’s not misrepresent reality, shall we? As for the pernicious influence, you need look no further than plain-speaking Sarah Palin and her many millions of supporters and fellow-travellers, for whom big cities and the cosmopolitan lifestyles they support are anathema.

    You must be joking about my “getting out more,” too. I’m no stranger to rural America – from the Adirondacks and the outskirts of Fayetteville NC to New Mexico, southern Oregon and eastern Washington State – and I’d trade every single social occasion I’ve ever had in all of those places put together for an hour’s conversation in a big-city coffeehouse or dive bar.

    Both by design and in practice, great cities are generators of novelty, proving grounds for the emergent, seedbeds of hybridity and safe harbors for the minor. They number among humanity’s highest collective accomplishments and there can be no substitute for the good they do. So let’s have a little less fetishizing of the rural, shall we?

  12. AG you are absolutely right about the subsidization of rural America. They get far more dollars back then they put in, in almost every respect. And I can’t see myself ever seeing the countryside as, for me, anything but a place to escape the city temporarily.

    But even if I agreed that the existence of a rural population is, on the whole, a drain on the body politic, I’m not sure what to do about it. Letting them rot by forcing them to survive without subsidies from the productive segments of the economy doesn’t seem like an option I am morally comfortable with any more than I am comfortable letting people with any other social disadvantages fall through the safety net. Their suffering may end up costing us more than what we pay for their comfort.

    The fact is country people are already there, situated and living their lives, generation after generation, in the country. Encouraging or even forcing an exodus from the provinces to new urban settings would take decades or more (and if today’s emerging urban industrial economies are any indicator, that process won’t be pretty).

    In the meantime, I’ll admit that simple compassion may be the only real justification for this expense.

    I hate to come across as patronizing here, but Adam is right that rural America, although they may not know it, is already effectively subsidized as much as, if not more than, any other disadvantaged underclass in America. If my advocacy comes across as effectively a call for national charity or welfare for those poooor sad country folk, then so be it.

  13. AG: You seem to be reading a lot more into my placing the words “rural” and “living” next to each other than I was intending. I merely meant working, sleeping, and shopping in a rural area. I wasn’t making any explicit reference to an imagined bucolic lifestyle. After all, I’m an Asian New Yorker who is prone to excessive paranoia about being surrounded by a bunch of white guys who drive pickup trucks. You’re not going to hear me singing any paeans for the good old days of the American prairie.

  14. @Francis gotcha.

    @Julie: Yes, but your signature links to a site whose tag line is “Keep it Rural,” and of which you are identified as an editor. My inference was fair, no?

  15. I just wanted to note that I didn’t intend this to produce a debate about the comparative ethics of living in urban or rural areas.

    Quite the opposite, in fact: That we can do things to directly benefit one group, things that will ultimately benefit the country as a whole — and that we can do this without getting into that debate.

  16. Well, it’s moot now: The Senate nixed the whole rural broadband portion of the stimulus as part of a compromise to Republicans demanding less spending on projects in the stimulus package. Maybe they’ll bring it back later, but for now it’s dead. Sorry country folk.

  17. I know I missed the boat on most of this discussion and it’s a shame–it’s a great article with some well-written, salient points. Broadband, at the very least, should be considered just as much of a right in this country as access to education and basic public services. While I realize it’s optimistic to think that these should become subsidized personally, it is a necessity.

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