In a rural Tennessee church in the 1940s a man whose farmstead had just been connected to Tennessee Valley Association power lines rose to give witness, saying, “Brothers and sisters, I want to tell you this. The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”
It’s a sentiment that resonates with the ambitious White House infrastructure proposal to spend $2 trillion building things from bridges to railroads to rural broadband. That Tennessee farmer couldn’t have known anything about the internet, but he would have recognized the wonder and respectful awe that goes into thinking big and how realizing dreams can transform the core of daily existence.
I spent a career writing about rural issues, and for two decades it’s been obvious that there’s no way to improve the economies of small-town communities without consistently reliable high-speed internet connections, which they do not have now.
The similarities with rural electrification during the 1940s are almost perfect. The basic reluctance to making either of those services happen was that there weren’t enough customers to make it profitable. In the case of electricity, the doubters asked, what will poor country folks do with it anyway?
The forces that finally broke through the objections were explained in that Tennessee church. The farmer didn’t see electricity as something that would light the bare bulb in his living room, but as a way to connect his life to the rest of the world.
I worked with another man who could articulate how objections to great ideas like rural electrification are overcome. Bob Bergland, former President Carter’s Secretary of Agriculture whom I got to know when he headed the rural electric co-op association, would say that bringing electricity to rural America wasn’t a technical problem, but a social problem. New engineering techniques were certainly required to carry power over longer distances, but the more important issues to resolve were complacency and old habits.
Few people today would dispute the value of reliable electric service in every home. But that wasn’t always so. Profit-making utilities fought hard and dirty against the competition even into remote areas they would never be interested in serving. When investor-owned utilities declined to take advantage of federal electrification loans and farmers formed their own co-ops instead, the upstart utilities were smeared as communists. Across the road from co-op power poles, the utilities built “spite lines” to undermine any possible interference with their business — it was an overreach, and that is why today utilities are regulated monopolies.
What made rural electrification possible was the vision of people who believed. Not just its well-known champions like FDR and Lyndon Johnson, but volunteers who could see the future, riding on horseback from farmhouse to farmhouse, persuading neighbors that no, electricity would not make their hens stop laying eggs, and that yes, they should part with the precious $5 sign-up fee to start a user-owned utility.
The internet takes us into libraries, businesses, government agencies, and even churches like they’re just next door. But in non-metropolitan areas, even the best connections are often spotty and slow, and anyone who’s taken a long car trip knows there are places you can’t even make a phone call in 2021.
The need for rural broadband has been talked about until it’s practically a standard, and empty, campaign slogan. Even piecemeal improvements take forever. No wonder small-town America feels disconnected — it’s because it is, literally and figuratively.
Some call “The American Jobs Plan” too expensive. Others say it doesn’t spend enough to revitalize our infrastructure. The dollar figure is less important than the scope, which President Biden compares to the interstate highway system or the moon landing. Another comparison The White House makes in announcing the plan is that, correctly, “broadband internet is the new electricity,” and it aims for 100% coverage. That’s a goal as lofty, almost, as having the love of God in your heart.