Seeking Concern for Community in Broadening Internet Access

Having worked in the field of aging for 45 years, I’ve had the privilege of listening to stories from two very different generations. Working in mental health in the early years gave me the opportunity to hear privately held true stories of challenge and, more importantly, resilience. This is a form of storytelling distinctly different from, “When I was a kid we walked three miles in the snow to school.” I remember the names but withhold them here.

One was the story of the 80-year-old man suddenly overcome with what proved to be cathartic emotion upon speaking of his memory of sitting on the front porch, his mom reporting she was going to get eggs, and never returning. Another was the story of a 13-year-old child becoming pregnant in a household ruled by her strict preacher-father and, when she spontaneously aborted twins, her enraged father throwing the tiny fetuses into the living room stove. A third was a story that had been withheld for 65 years, of the 24-year-old father who, during the worst of the Depression and living without electricity, disconnected the battery from his coupe regularly to power the radio for his young children and to listen to FDR’s fireside chats.  

Old Thinking Vs. New, not Improved, Thinking

In my mind, I often return to these Depression-era stories and lament the passing of that New-Deal type of thinking. I lament because it is painful to see modern young adults having to reinvent solutions to the press of daily life in an economy without opportunities for far too many—cooperative living (formerly, families with boarders), community kitchens (soup lines), walking to work (holes in your soles), washing clothes in the bathtub (washboard living).

What a shame that the needed intergenerational learning and mentoring did not occur. Could it be that the Baby Boom generation, in its rush to reject anyone over 30, dropped the “memory” ball?

Then, and occasionally now, old people reminisce about when government could pull off big national projects: the Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration sidewalks in thousands of neighborhoods across the nation—on both sides of the street, no less!

Recently, as I was sitting in on the ASA Forum on Tech and Aging, which addressed older adults’ significant lack of access to the Internet (especially in rural communities), my thoughts turned to one of those New Deal BIG deals—the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

I wondered, Why don’t we today see the Internet as an essential utility in the way we used to see telephones and electricity? There may be several reasons, summed up in mindless political slogans: “Government is not the solution.” (thanks, Ronald Reagan); “People should take personal responsibility.” (thanks, Newt Gingrich}; “It will be impossible to pay for that.” (thanks, Paul Ryan). This is the same kind of thinking, of course, that would never produce the notion that healthcare is a right.

I did a little research on the concept of the Internet as a public utility. It seems that, in the late 19th century, telephone and power companies began as highly local endeavors. Power companies using direct current, by definition, were restricted by geography. (See the recent movie “The Current Wars,” on the battle between direct and indirect current).

Similarly, telephone exchanges were tiny. Every small town had its own “one line” exchange. Given the capitalist business model as well as technological change, these local industries became quickly consolidated during the first decades of the 20th century. Industrialists argued that a “natural monopoly” was necessary to afford the large capital needs of the companies.

When the Market Fails to Serve Everyone, Government Steps In

As companies failed to see a profit in serving poor populations in rural areas, regulatory frameworks emerged and guided the growth of these industries until the “deregulation” spirit took over late in the 20th century, forgetting the desperation of the Depression, which clearly revealed the failure of the market system to meet the needs of the poor.

The federal government stepped up to the plate with federal construction projects such as TVA and low interest loans to expand the grid. Many of these loans went to local cooperatives, established by groups of farmers and others seeking to promote the public good. This democratized the system with local control and, today, nearly 1,000 and more than 500 locally owned cooperatives operate in the electric and telecom industries, respectively. On their websites, these cooperatives continue to share the seven cooperative principles originally stated in Rochdale, England, in 1844. 

The telecom industry has replicated the growth model of other major industries going back to the days of crank telephones and party lines. In businesses that require heavy capitalization, however, the market generally fails to serve everyone. Growth in profit outweighs growth in service. With the unlikely prospect of a major change in our economic system, government support will need to step in, as always, where the market system fails. I am encouraged by the growing debate surrounding the future of capitalism.

‘It is painful to see modern young adults having to reinvent solutions to the press of daily life in an economy without opportunities for far too many.’

With a few exceptions in Indiana, smaller cooperative telecom and electric companies seem to effectively compete with the mega ones in the percentage of the population being served. In fact, in some of southeastern Indiana’s poorest counties’ percentage of broadband service rates range from the high 80s to high 90s.

Moreover, the state legislature has shown national leadership through legislation that allows electric cooperatives to install fiber systems using their own public easements. Fiber will enable customers to outdistance the frequent telephone line dial up, DSL and satellite options, which don’t even quality as broadband.

While AT&T and Verizon prioritize investment in dense urban areas, cooperatives continue to be the lead agents of rural Internetification. Yet, they work at a disadvantage. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has issued a valuable set of policy recommendations from which one can infer the competitive disadvantages they encounter and possible solutions going forward:

  1. Design funding programs with cooperatives in mind: a. Letters of credit from the largest banks may be hard to come by for smaller cooperatives. b. Make applications as simple as possible—staff time is limited at small cooperatives. c. Develop grant and loan programs rather than creating incentives in the tax code for infrastructure investment.
  2. Encourage cooperatives by removing barriers and fostering partnerships. a. Remove barriers to electric cooperatives exploring the possibility of a fiber network—cooperatives should not be prevented from applying to federal grants for which they are eligible because of malformed state laws. b. Encourage partnerships, including with existing muni networks.

For more information on Fiberizing Rural America, click here.

So, as in the days of FDR, government has been playing a big role, but perhaps the wrong role, rolling back regulations in favor of large corporations. It took Obama-era net neutrality regulations to put all customers on a level playing field, as users of “common carriers,” akin to old-fashioned utilities.

The repeal of net neutrality by the FCC during the Trump administration paved the way for corporations to provide faster service to wealthier customers and leave lower income, often rural, often older customers behind.

In the Biden administration, we’re likely to see a return to net neutrality, and local cooperatives will once again be able to pursue Goal No. 7 of the Rochdale principles: concern for community.

Philip B. Stafford, PhD, is the CoDesign director at Commons Planning, Inc., and adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology  at Indiana University in Bloomington. He has been a longstanding leading voice in the age-friendly community movement. Stafford serves on ASA’s Board of Directors.