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MOUNTAIN VIEWS: GREAT DEPRESSION PROGRAM OFFERS BLUEPRINT FOR BROADBAND SOLUTION

By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- The late senator Adlai Stevenson, who got thundered twice in the 1950s running for the White House against World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower, may not have been as adroit a presidential candidate as Ike, but he had a quick tongue and a way of summarizing national problems since unsurpassed.

Of the American people's habit of ignoring crucial national but solvable problems until they become vexing and intertwined crises, Stevenson remarked that our complacent citizens usually "can't read the writing on the wall until their backs are up against it."

Sadly, this has become particularly true of our political class -- executive and legislative branches alike -- in which elected officials think they are serving the public simply by blustering weakly about this or that issue, and then doing nothing. This is particularly true in the area of broadband availability.

I usually think about this arcane subject only when I'm writing or researching this column, waiting for my creaky, Model T dial-up service to kick in -- during which period I can usually prepare and eat a modest breakfast while counting deer in the upper pasture.

Now, I'm thinking about it a lot -- especially in the wake of a recent brilliant blog on the terrific site www.scholarsandrogues.com by my teaching colleague and friend Dr. Dennis Wilkins, who goes by the handle Dr. Denny. Wilkins, a close friend and mentor for six years now, is unlike some academics and most politicians in that he actually thinks deeply about problems and reacts to them by devising a plan for solutions. Last week he took on the much-predicted death of newspapers by suggesting a brave and perspicacious new business model for the troubled journalism biz.

Some of the sections contained new approaches to already-evident goals, such as recapturing revenue sources from dwindling classified and display ad sections, producing higher quality journalism (both print and electronic) by investing in more reporters and editors instead of laying them all off in mindless cost-cutting offensives, and reeling in younger readers by taking into consideration the growth and pass-along culture of free content by social networking successes such as Facebook and YouTube.

But it was when Wilkins came to this section of advice -- "Newspaper companies must decide what to do with their print product" -- that he hit me with one of those lightning-bolt "Of course!" moments.

Dr. Denny began this small chapter with the observation that some newspapers have started to abandon the print product -- by abandoning their readers: "They have withdrawn from a widespread regional and rural circulation to core areas around their large municipal centers. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is a good example here.) This, too, is a shortsighted means to cut expenses. An industry that abandons customers is extraordinarily misled by its managers."

Wilkins believes that "responsible corporate leaders" will seek to retain readers, their customers, and to acquire new ones. If a decision is made to abandon the print paper for an online version only -- and that seems to many experts the way we're going in this industry -- "then newspapers should lobby for a broadband version of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. The means to reach more readers must accompany a decision to go-it-online. Broadband must have broad, affordable reach to encompass the whole of a society. News companies should lobby Congress for government-assisted and encouraged broadband access throughout rural America."

Broadband comes from the term "broad bandwidth" and is used to describe networks having bandwidth significantly greater than what is found in telephony networks. Broadband systems are capable of carrying large numbers of moving images, voice, vast quantities of data simultaneously, and provide zip-zap connection to the Internet and a two-way link between an end user and access-network suppliers capable of supporting full-motion, interactive video applications. It is to dial-up access what electricity was to candlelight. That is one reason Dr. Denny's reference to the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 -- the legislation President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed to bring most of America into the 20th century -- is so apt.

The United States was mired in the depths of the Great Depression then. Farmers, ranchers and small-town residents were still using candles, whale oil lanterns and kerosene lamps. At the start of that decade, only 10 percent of rural homes had electricity. Those that did paid private power companies four times the rates city-dwellers enjoyed. It was too costly to extend power lines to rural areas, claimed utility officials, who at the same time argued it was illegal and downright un-American for government to compete with or regulate private enterprise.

Congressman John E. Rankin, a Democrat from Mississippi, and liberal Republican Sen. William Norris from Nebraska (he grew up on a Sandusky County farm in Ohio), introduced innovative legislation that set up a system of cooperative electric power companies -- with installation of electric distribution systems funded by loans from the federal government -- that purchased power on a wholesale basis from both private utilities and federal sources like the new hydroelectric damn-building TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority). Most of these power "co-ops" still exist today.

The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was created to run it, and REA crews scoured the American countryside, bringing teams of electricians along to wire houses and barns with power from new 6,900-volt distribution networks, tripling the old 2,300-volt systems which would dim about four miles from source. The new network could support stranding runs of up to 40 miles. A typical farmhouse would get a 60-amp, 230-volt fuse panel, a 60-amp range circuit, a 20-amp kitchen circuit, three 15-amp lighting circuits, with a ceiling-mounted light fixture in each room (controlled by a switch mounted next to the entry doorway), and usually no more than one outlet per room.

Just three years after FDR affixed his signature, 40 percent of rural homes in the United States had electricity -- nearly 300,000 households. The private utilities saw the light, literally and figuratively, and began extending service into the American countryside at lower rates.

Much of the expansion funding came from direct loans and loan guarantees from the REA. Those programs still play a key role in improving American rural life, and are administered by the RUS (Rural Utilities Service) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- one of the few things the USDA hasn't screwed up in the current administration.

So why does Dr. Denny have to urge revisiting this strategy on a federal level for universal broadband access? Isn't it adequate already? Hasn't the current administration achieved that? The answers, in reverse order, are No, No, and Are You Kidding Me?

Among industrial nations, the United States ranks 15th in broadband access, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a multi-nation group that ranks such things. When the Dubya administration came in, it was 12th. There are about 22 broadband subscribers in this country for every 100 inhabitants. Little countries like Switzerland and Denmark and Holland have more than 30. Canada, Korea and Iceland are among the nations out-ranking us.

According to the folks who run www.broadbandreports.com -- the most informative site I've found yet on this subject (and one which also took note of the relevance of Adlai Stevenson's famous quote) -- this is because "we lack a comprehensive national broadband strategy of any kind." Instead, we leave such decisions and initiatives to big corporations and utility companies, neither of whom the Dubya administration wants to offend.

Our actual national strategy, says broadbandreports.com, "consists of paying broadband lip service only during political campaigns, implementing flimsy policies aimed solely at protecting the revenues of the largest operators, then issuing reports that pat ourselves on the back for a job well done."

There is evidence of this. When it comes to broadband access, the minions of President George W. Bush, in a strategy that might actually work in Iraq, tend to declare victory, pull out and go home. Even the bureaucracy that is supposed to administer the universal provision of broadband for Americans is obscure: the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Department of Commerce.

At the end of 2007, Dubya's sidemen, rather than assess the dismal situation, simply issued a release that said Bush's goal "to achieve universal broadband" has now been met.

"Today's report shows the nation's broadband success story," burbled Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. "The broadband policies put in place by the president have created a competitive environment to foster innovation and provide effective technologies."

Dubya's people officially claimed broadband access is now available in 99 percent of the nation's zip codes -- a boast much disputed by competent apolitical researchers and just about anybody I could find who posted blogs or "total crap" comments following this dubious claim. If it is, it can only be afforded by wealthy users in many of them.

Dr. Denny's advice that news companies should urge Congress for government-assisted broadband access outside the big cities is certainly merited, and one that should be self-evident for publishers.

"It is unthinkable," wrote Wilkins, "for an industry that has its origins in defending its readers as their adversary to government to abandon those readers just because their location is geographically problematic. The public service mission of journalism ought to rule here. An industry engaged in journalism can't be allowed to leave people behind."

Agreed, totally. But to lobby Congress, a task daunting enough, will first necessitate educating Congress about the problem. Few members seem to have paid much attention. Exceptions are:

All three of these appear mired in various committees in the Senate at present, although Durbin cleverly attached his to a farm bill that may or may not gain approval later this spring.

The alert reader may notice a pattern here: All Democrats for bill authors. The Republicans avoid this issue with a 10-foot pole, apparently not wanting to offend their big-giver online provider execs who are satisfied with the status quo, or don't want their high rates lowered.

Carol Wilson, who writes of this issue on www.telephonyonline.com, stated last month that "it's generally frustrating to listen to all the reasons why our government sometimes can't seem to get anything done, but it's specifically frustrating to listen to all the reasons why the U.S. can't have a broadband policy that guarantees access in areas that are underserved today." Wilson accurately writes that "everyone agrees it's a great idea, in fact, it's essential to our economic future -- and that future isn't looking all that bright right now. But there is little agreement on how it should be done."

Here's a place to start. Ask your member of Congress what he or she thinks about cheaper broadband access. After they refigure the blank looks on their faces, tell them you're going to base your vote on the answer. Then tell them the very future of the newspaper execs whose endorsement they just sought depends upon it.


John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 15 2008