Broadband in Ruralia

According to Thomas Freedman, we shouldn’t be worried about broadband capabilities in rural America:

Right now, though, notes Levin, America is focused too much on getting “average” bandwidth to the last 5 percent of the country in rural areas, rather than getting “ultra-high-speed” bandwidth to the top 5 percent, in university towns, who will invent the future. By the end of 2012, he adds, South Korea intends to connect every home in the country to the Internet at one gigabit per second. “That would be a tenfold increase from the already blazing national standard, and more than 200 times as fast as the average household setup in the United States,” The Times reported last February.

Therefore, the critical questions for America today have to be how we deploy more ultra-high-speed networks and applications in university towns to invent more high-value-added services and manufactured goods and how we educate more workers to do these jobs — the only way we can maintain a middle class.

Erik Loomis disagrees, arguing:

I know the fact that people live in rural areas and small towns is inconvenient for people obsessed with national planning and technological fetishism, but that’s the reality of the United States. You can’t just marginalize these people and their futures by dooming them to second-rate access to resources. I mean, you can, but then you have to deal with endemic poverty, high rates of drug use, domestic violence, and any number of other social problems.

He is particularly concerned about rural Hispanics.

I am, of course, in the middle of this. I am a broadband using geek living in rural America. So naturally, I am sympathetic to the idea that the “last 5%” should get broadband. I am not presently in the last 5%, but I’m close enough to it that we would have to be careful about where we buy a home. I’ve already let it be known that broadband is not optional. But I am a computer geek. A lot of people out here can live with cut-rate connectivity. There’s nowhere in the country (or the lower 48, anyway) that you can’t get something, even if it’s satellite. Satellite might not be good enough for me, but I am not a typical case. The degree to which the rest of the country should bend over backwards for its most rural brethren is limited.

It leads to projects like this, where millions was spent on areas with 35k homes, of which 30k already had fixed broadband service. Over 90% of the remaining 5k had 3G availability, which isn’t ideal but is still something. I would be surprised if satellite were not an option for the remaining 500 houses. At some point, I think you have to say “good enough” and move on.

On the other hand, Friedman’s suggestion about the top 5% leaves me cold. Namely because we want a degree of universality to our service. Even if some get left behind, web site developers and content deliverers (like Netflix, Hulu, etc.) need to have some idea of the sorts of speeds that people are going to get. If you plug in Silicon Valley, and their speeds are significantly faster than everyone else (who isn’t in the top 5%, that is), they will be developing things for those speeds. This is already a problem, with inadequate buffering on the unjustified beliefs that everyman’s delivery speeds are faster than they are.

In terms of Internet, what I would very much prefer over raising speed caps is raising speed reliability. The other day I was at a coffee shop wherein all of the comments I wanted to leave at blogs had to be emailed to my cell phone, where I could then post it using my phone. The main reason is that they (I believe) have to dedicate so much of their bandwidth to downloading and so little to uploading, that the latter just became impossible. This is at a hot spot. This is where we really need improvement before we’re worried about the top 5% (or, for that matter, the left behind 5%).

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. They’re both wrong, because they’re both thinking of it in terms of national planning, rather than in terms of demand and value.

    But Friedman–as usual–is the most wrong. He’s one of those perpetual asshats who think we need to keep up with the Jones’s, even as the Jones’s are making unnecessary expenditures.

    “But look, honey! Jones has two riding lawnmowers; one for the front yard and one for the back!”

      • That’s how I feel about Friedman. Loomis I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of.

        • I you read his blog posts on “paralegals, knives, and IOU’s,” you might get a sense of it. From what I can gather from reading his book reviews (I have not read his monograph), he is not so bad as a historian, but when he writes about anything else, he’s Mr. Ideology, the type of person maybe I once was in the past, but I hope I am not any more.

    • While national planners should certainly consider things like demand and value, that doesn’t mean their shouldn’t be a plan, or at least a suggestion.

      Broadband internet combines heavy infrastructural requirements and high switching costs in a market full of monopolies–which is to say the market force of competition that would otherwise be expected to create an efficient market is mostly absent.

      • Alan,

        Everyone of those monopolies is a monopoly only because of laws restricting competition. Get rid of those laws and you’ll find those monopolies disappear.

        • Actually, I missed the really pertinent point. Planners can’t consider demand and value. It’s not only practically impossible, it’s not even possible in theory. It’s not a set of information out there waiting to be collected and analyzed by government planners–it’s continually changing information that is constantly being created and re-created in new forms and values by the contingent interactions of individuals. And thus Hayek won the socialist calculation debate, although decades later that news still hasn’t been widely disseminated to the general public.

        • Part of the reason for the restrictions on competition, as I understand it, is that laying down the lines creates a public nuisance. You have to dig up the streets, or at least the sidewalks, every time a new competitor wants to enter the market, and you have to do it all over town. The town could levy a Pigovian tax on digging, I guess. I’m not sure how well that would work in practice, though. It’s obviously worth it for the first company, but is the second company going to want to pay to lay down the lines to enter a competitive market?

          • Brandon,

            There is that aspect, which creates something of a natural monopoly. But just as we can artificially create a monopoly through regulation where no natural monopoly exists, we can also create a market through regulation where a natural monopoly does exist. And when we do so, we eliminate that problem of always digging up streets to lay new lines.

            Consider how the deregulated long-distance telephone market (before we all shifted to cell-phones) worked–the local carrier carried all phone traffic, and the long-distance carriers paid an access fee. That does require regulation (as much as my libertarian heart breaks at the thought), to keep the local carrier from pricing everyone except the highest bidder out of the market. (The key to a good regulated market is to ensure real choice among the end-users.)

            Electricity markets operate the same way. I recently got a pitch to sell me wind power, but nobody’s proposing to run a line from a windmill to my house. Rather, for every customer they sign up, the wind company dumps that energy into the common grid, paying an access fee. (It’s slightly more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.) In fact my brother, who lives in Nevada running some kind of business I don’t really understand, is trying to sell me natural gas in Michigan–if I bought from him I’d still get my natural gas for my stove through my local company’s lines, but somewhere back down the pipeline some other supplier is getting my money, putting in some gas, and paying the local company for access.

            Overall, the reason we set things up that way is to avoid the costs of digging up and laying competing lines, or more precisely, since the inefficiency of bearing that cost repeatedly would most likely lead to a local monopoly that does it just once, to avoid the problems of monopoly.

            And when it comes to data transfer, in a way it’s even easier. Not only can you use the same trick of dumping data from different outside carriers into a common local carrier, some folks can opt to avoid the local carrier altogether by going for a satellite system, meaning that there’s even more competition in the market.

    • The question really isn’t either/or. It’s obvious that market forces should sort out the high-demand issue. The question is whether, if there is a threshold of density/demand below which basically no service can be supported, we (via the gov’t) should view this as a market (I want to think of a word less value-laden than failure) outcome we want to redress on a principle that doesn’t claim to be based on demand and value.

      I know (I think I know) that your response is “no, because these facts are information that these residents ought to factor into their decisions about where to live, and not doing so means we incur potentially great costs to the public by lowering the costs to these people of choosing this place to live.” But others in the country may have a different feeling about how they want the nation to relate itself to either, generally, the decision about where to live, or, specifically, perhaps to a romanticized idea of Teh rural Life.

      I’m not arguing this wouldn’t be a mistake (just like the many we make that lower the costs of choosing to live in suburbs, for example), I’m just saying that it may consciously not be made on the terms of demand and value, and so the argument may have to be at that level – why that should be the consideration rather than a consciously contra-market-outcome policy toward rural life or housing choices generally – rather than simply pointing out that this is a simple failure to follow a demand/value-based policy. That much may be conscious and stipulated.

      A similar basic issue exists with respect to rural post offices.

      • What I think is funny is that there seems to be a pretty big overlap between the people who think that global warming is a dire threat to humanity and that government should stop subsidizing suburban sprawl through highway funding and mandatory parking lots on the one hand, and those who think that it’s important that we subsidize an even more gasoline-intensive lifestyle through universal telephone, mail, and broadband access.

        • “Yes, we want people to at have at least potential access to these common services pretty much wherever you choose to live within reason, but we’re not going to help you out with the fuel costs that are a direct result of that choice” doesn’t seem like a completely ridiculous position to me, even though it’s not necessarily mine.

          Trading these relatively minor subsidies for a fundamental change to transportation policy in this country would, I would think, be a worthwhile exchange for free marketers and climate advocates alike, and a step forward for both camps, I would think. I could be wrong. Not that it’s on the table.

      • I know (I think I know) that your response is “no, because these facts are information that these residents ought to factor into their decisions about where to live, and not doing so means we incur potentially great costs to the public by lowering the costs to these people of choosing this place to live.” But others in the country may have a different feeling about how they want the nation to relate itself to either, generally, the decision about where to live, or, specifically, perhaps to a romanticized idea of Teh rural Life.

        The threading makes it hard to know for sure, but I think this is a response to me?

        Indeed I do think people should have to take such things into account when they make their decisions. (And I say this as a guy who is living in a much too big an urban center for his own taste–a city of 20k.)

        I understand that others have a different vision, but what justifies them requiring me to subsidize their idyllic life? Or, more properly, since given my druthers I’d be the one benefiting from others, what justifies me expecting others to subsidize my rural life?

        Let me put this in the context of another public policy. Airlines used to be regulated to require cross-subsidization, whereby passengers flying out of large urban centers subsidized passengers flying out of mid-sized metro areas. The end of the regulation of prices from mid-sized areas means many cities the size of, say, Toledo, OH, Fort Wayne, IN, and Eugene, OR, are struggling to keep passenger service, as airlines raise the fares from those places. For me this means I can no longer get flights out of Toledo, but must drive twice as far to fly out of Detroit, a much less convenient airport in many ways. But should the much more willing Detroit passengers be required to subsidize me so I can have the convenience of flying out of Toledo? My former Congressman in Oregon, Peter DeFazio, once argued so. But even then, although the Eugene airport was 20 minutes from my house, while PDX was 2 hours away, I just couldn’t see the justice of it.

        I don’t want to make this an absolute claim and say that no elements of rural life can be legitimately subsidized. I’m dubious there are any, but I hesitate to make such sweeping claims and would consider each on a case-by-case basis. (E.g., rural post offices; although there I’d minimize the degree of subsidy by going back to the old style of having private businesses fulfill the PO function, or at least having the PO just rent space in a local store, if it’s more cost-effective.) And of course it’s possible that there are areas in which rural people are subsidizing urban folk (public transportation), and I don’t mean to imply none of that happens, or that it doesn’t matter.

        • James,

          I was responding to you. I understand and a large extent agree with these arguments. They’re sort of standard and irrefutable in a way. My point was just that the terms on which they are made just aren’t going to always be the terms on which the public debate is held.

    • This is where I am firmly off the libertarian wagon – and not just because I live in an area that benefits from such. I believe that we all benefit from a degree of universality of service. This applies more to some arenas more than others. I don’t think we need to make sure BFE has the same Internet speeds as Silicon Valley, for example, but making sure that BFE has something that’s enough to “get by” benefits people outside of BFE who know people in BFE and creates a broader atmosphere of participation. For the mail, there is value in being able to know that wherever I am sending a letter from, someone in BFE will receive it in a reasonably timely manner (I do agree about consolidating PO’s into general stores and such).

      To0 me, one of the blind spots of markets is when a particular area is not profitable, but the entire network (Internet, mail service, roads, to a lesser extent air service) benefits from being more complete. Sometimes this can solve itself. UPS and FedEx will deliver to almost anywhere, and either (a) they’re willing to take a loss on Glasgow, Montana, for the sake of the network, or (b) they really do charge the extra bit for Glasgow and it turns out that the extra costs of such places actually aren’t that great (sending something to Glasgow is not that much more expensive than sending it to Denver).

      When it comes to other things, however, it’s harder. And I think there’s an argument to be made that the Internet is one of these things. Adding rural locations to the network is expensive to whomever actually does it and can’t make money on it, but the benefits are spread out to everyone.

      (None of this is to say that I agree with Loomis. I just believe that there’s a real argument there.)

  2. I live a town, population maybe 1550 people. I get the best broadband service I’ve ever had in my life here. The fiber goes right by my building and the switch is just down the street.


    • We were actually on the list of places that Google was considering, but we were passed over. All in all, I think the service is actually better here (population sub-4000) than in some of the larger cities I’ve lived in.

Comments are closed.