An Internet in Every Pot. Or Maybe Not.

In the comments, LuisB raises a good point. One argument you hear against the idea of public broadband is that it's too risky from a financial perspective, particularly in places where the market has decided that demand doesn't justify the capital investment. That's something similar, suggests Luis, to what was said before FDR's rural electrification push in the '30s: Farm people just don't want electricity. But then the TVA's electrification of parts of the South suddenly made hand-grinding corn and scrubbing clothes somewhat less romantic. Could something like that happen with broadband?

Given the powerful forces involved in the broadband debate, more concrete demonstrations of demand help. ArsTechnica's Nate Anderson has the story of Monticello, Minnesota, a town that could only convince its local telecom that its people really wanted broadband in their homes when the town started building out its own municipal fiber network.

But whether Americans beyond Monticello really want a 50 Mbps fiber-to-the-home enough to justify the investment is a point of debate. A Pew report found not too long ago that nearly half of Americans who don't have access to broadband Internet don't want it. There are plenty of good reasons why that's the case, a few of which have probably already jumped into your head. For one thing, it's expensive! Pew also found that a full third of dial-up users are waiting until the price drops before they make the switch. Besides that, it's a bit much to expect people to know they want broadband if they've never known broadband. Like Tivo or Twitter, you don't necessarily know what you're missing until you've tried it. That's why the National Broadband Task Force, charged with handing out $20 billion in stimulus funds, has occupied itself in its early months with proving that broadband Internet is a very good thing indeed.

To extend the demand question a bit, there's a reasonable case to be made that blazing fast broadband in every home is a slightly off-target goal, at least right now. Ubiquitous electrification makes sense. The warm glow of a light bulb only travels so far. But Internet can have impact even if it's one step removed. A furniture factory in Appalachia can employ 100 new people because a broadband connection sets the facility up to take orders in from all over the world, even if those workers never step within 50 feet of a computer. That's a nuance to the question of demand that gets somewhat lost when we talk about where we absolutely need to get with broadband in the short term.

--Nancy Scola

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