They used to call it POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service). According to Wikipedia, this was the standard phone service offered between 1876 and 1988. Of course, that all began to unravel when we gave birth to digital services and what came to be known as the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) — think copper wire vs. fiber optics and radio waves.
The problem with POTS was that rural communities had difficulty getting services. It’s like our experiences with cable networks. There was more profit installing cable infrastructure in densely populated communities. Early on, POTS actually stood for Post Office Telephone Services, where rural residents had to connect through their post offices.
More equitable services began in the 1930s with the New Deal and the Communications Act of 1934 which gave birth to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Universal phone service was an outgrowth, “making available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nationwide and worldwide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges…” Such service became the law of the land. The stated goal of this act was to make sure that all U.S. citizens would have access to quality communication services at reasonable costs.
Then came the internet. Access initially required a cable connection or a telephone line with a modem. But those old phone-line modems were slow, not the broadband we know of today that can carry pictures, games, videos and movies. But we face the same issues today with broadband that folks in the 1930s faced with telephones. Since the U.S. government hasn’t made “broadband highways” a universal federal infrastructure priority in the 21st century, it’s been left to for-profit companies to create the networks and once again, the profits are in high density population sectors, relegating much of rural America to second-class citizenship. Yes, there have been some non-profit entities set up, often through rural electrical cooperatives, but the need far exceeds these localized initiatives.
The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran a story about a small town, Kutztown, Pennsylvania, located 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The town couldn’t get any company to provide services, so it built its own broadband network. Like any other utility, people in Kutztown can have internet services in their homes and pay the town the same way they pay for other utilities like water, gas and electricity.
Municipal broadband services like almost anything else in this day and age comes with some controversy. These publicly owned internet services compete against the corporate broadband giants like Spectrum, Comcast, AT&T and CenturyLink and might have the effect of driving down prices, not to the liking of the corporate giants. Also, municipal networks can be challenging to run and maintain and break even.
The Biden White House has called broadband the “new electricity.” As further reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the current administration wants to do what the Franklin Roosevelt White House did when it brought “power to nearly every home because it was crucial to the economy…” and “Biden’s internet proposal would override 19 state laws that restrict municipalities from competing with the large private providers. According to the federal government, over 30 million Americans live in areas without broadband infrastructure, and millions more can’t afford it because the U.S. has higher broadband prices than other countries.”
If the Biden broadband infrastructure plan provides funding for municipalities, cooperatives and non-profits, that would be a welcome outcome for places like Highland County. Initial reports are that broadband is a bipartisan issue, but who can predict what will eventually happen in today’s hyper-political environment. One thing is for sure — if places like Hillsboro and the rest of Highland County are to compete economically in this decade and century, we must have high-speed access for our homes and businesses. It’s great if our libraries and schools have access, but if our students go home and can’t connect or do the necessary research from home, they are tragically handicapped.
It’s not just a question of megabits per second (Mbps). Forget about video, zooming or gaming. I’m writing this column from my farm in Berrysville. Because I have no broadband connection on Berrysville Road I have constant trouble with Microsoft Word. Word is now delivered from somewhere in the great “Cloud,” and if it can’t communicate through this cumulus ether, it constantly admonishes me that my subscription is not “verifiable” and therefore most of its features will not be functional.
Broadband is an equal-opportunity issue for Americans across the continent. Like electricity, water, sewer and gas utilities, this is a must for citizens of this country. Rural Americans must not become 21st century second-class citizens. If the Biden broadband infrastructure plan for some reason or other does not pass, then Hillsboro, if it wants its citizens to be in the vanguard of America’s future, must step up and build its own broadband network.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.