By Tim Rowland
Electric lights began to twinkle in U.S. cities in 1910, but two decades later our farmlands, mountainsides and small towns remained in the dark. Private power companies believed that rural electrification wouldn’t pay, but objected to the government stepping in to do the job on the off chance that one day it would.
Today there are echoes of the rural electrification effort in government initiatives to extend broadband to the hinterlands. As with electrification, the issue of broadband is a matter of economic justice. In the coming decades, communities that lack sizable information pipelines will be left behind. Data is the new electricity.
But broadband extension has an environmental aspect as well, especially in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. There are two reasons.
A recent Washington Post article accurately tracked West Virginia’s transition from a blue to a red state. And while the standard Tea Party issues of guns and deficits have had a hand, the real driver was economics. Coal companies pass out enough in wages to keep local citizens loyal, while crushing any hope of economic diversification. Rather than blame coal, citizens blame government.
Even in areas of Appalachia where coal is not king, opportunities are slim. Dismal developments such as prisons and cavernous warehouses paying poverty-level wages are celebrated as good things. And it goes without saying that when survival is paramount in the psyche, matters of a clean environment and other perceived luxuries are kicked entirely off the map.
The inference that people of upland communities don’t care about the land is entirely wrong. Many, if not most, are keenly appreciative of clean air and water, and given the choice they far prefer riparian vegetation to paved parking lots and open-pit mines.
Broadband, potentially, gives them that choice.
Electricity freed companies from riverbanks. Moving water was no longer required for energy, so plants scattered to exploit other assets, such as an available workforce.
Broadband and the futuristic magic it offers, including 3-D printing and concepts we haven’t even dreamed of yet, will free companies from interstate industrial parks. Previously isolated communities that have able workers, a low tax base and fewer regulations (all assets of the Appalachian region) will find themselves open for business.
But perhaps more importantly, broadband moves more than companies, it moves people. Rolling farmlands and mountain streams offer an excellent quality of life for the segment of the population that prefers the wide open spaces to the confines of planned communities.
At present, even those workers whose employers encourage telecommuting are limited in how far into the wilds they can go. That’s too bad, because transplanted urbanites are almost always dedicated to the concept of a clean, healthy environment, an ideal they frequently preach to the locals with the urgency of a Dust Belt farmer praying for a downpour.
They volunteer in parks, plant trees, clean up litter and sponsor lectures featuring naturalists and soil conservationists. Road signs seemingly in the middle of nowhere will announce the presence of, for example, the Sleepy Creek Watershed Association. These groups do for free what governments closer to the cities pay serious money for. Some of their members are retired, but many commute to the office once a week and work at their home computers the rest.
Unfortunately, the expansion of broadband is difficult under the best of circumstance, and is rife with problems, familiar and otherwise. Private cable companies have criticized government broadband programs, calling it unfair competition. Tech-unsavvy governments themselves often seem clueless as to how to proceed. Egged on by Cisco, West Virginia, using federal stimulus money, purchased $24 million worth of oversized routers, and in one instance put a $20,000 router in a one-computer library building that was worth less than the router itself.
It is these foibles and dustups that draw the attention of self-proclaimed watchdogs of public dollars who, in their breathy reporting, miss the central point: a hands-off approach to the critical job of broadband expansion isn’t going to cut it.
In 1935, FDR created the Rural Electrification Administration, which helped private utilities, local authorities and community coops wire the United States. It was one of our nation’s most spectacular successes and included some unforeseen benefits, such as an explosion in the purchase of radios and appliances.
A cleaner environment would be the unforeseen beneficiary of broadband — one benefit of many, probably. But it would be a meaningful boost to a planet that needs all the help it can get.
Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.