The Last Attempt to Connect the Countryside.

The long-awaited National Broadband Plan was, as you might be aware, finally released Tuesday by a small planning unit within the Federal Communications Commission. What's been somewhat surprising is how the reaction to the plan among broadband-access advocates seems to be that it's a good document, as far as it goes. Fair enough. But a close read of this text suggests that what was given unto us doesn't go all that far.

What could the FCC have proposed here? Well, history contains an obvious example of what the federal government did in the past to extend a network to places in the U.S. that free-market calculations found unworthy. What FDR did in the 1930s was considered radical. Un-American, even. The Rural Electrification Administration was set up to bring electricity to the 90 percent of rural Americans who didn't have it. The private electric interests screamed bloody murder. REA started working with farmers cooperatives, providing government funding that built them into the foundations for many of the electric companies that exist in the U.S. today. FDR was vilified as a social, a Nazi. He didn't seem much to care. And suddenly, the math worked, and by 1940 about 90 percent of Americans living in the countryside had electricity. They could newly read books at night, which by general consensus is a good thing.

No doubt, the FCC would have gotten beaten up by the telecoms and their allies for suggesting, say, REA-like pilot projects involving a government role in the provisioning of broadband. Or course, in the New Deal era, rural electrification initiatives were denounced as a scheme that would inexorably lead to the downfall of the American republic. Somehow we soldiered on. Only this time, with lights.

--Nancy Scola

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