Broadband is the New Railroad

Benton Foundation

Friday, May 10, 2019

Digital Beat

Broadband is the New Railroad

Jonathan Sallet
          Sallet

Last July, the Benton Foundation announced a comprehensive, year-long review leading to the release of an agenda designed to update America’s approach to broadband access for the coming decade. As lead author of that report, which will be released in October, I’ve had the chance to speak with broadband experts — including representatives from government and public-interest organizations — and the conversations are continuing. What I am hearing – over and over – is that there isn’t a need any more to convince communities, and the people who live and work there, of the importance of making sure broadband networks serve them. They understand and they are acting.

Again, and again, I’ve heard that when people live in areas unserved and underserved by broadband networks, businesses are hard-pressed to start, grow, or stay there. Without the economic development and individual prospects enabled by competitive, advanced, and affordable broadband, people will find it harder to secure good-paying jobs, get training for future positions, or seek higher wages.

The link between broadband and local economic growth reminds me of the railroads, which makes sense in a way because today, May 10th, is the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Remember that Abraham Lincoln was a railroad man. He ran for president pledging to build the first railroad that would link the East and West Coasts. Once in office, he put the weight of his presidency behind the passage of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which supported construction of that transcontinental railroad with government loans and grants of land.

In succeeding decades after the Golden Spike was driven, the transcontinental railroad re-worked the American economy. Railroads were reliable and fast, lowering the cost of shipping, which boosted manufacturing.  As a consequence, goods were cheaper and consumer choices greater. And the nation was transformed as a result — its commerce, its laws, its business arrangements, its settlement, even the way it told time.

But it’s not only about the federal government. The story of the railroads also tells the story of the healthy relationship between federal and state/local (that is to say, state, county, and city) authorities in the intertwined deployment of networks and the creation of strategies for economic growth. It is for the federal government to make macro-economic policy and to boost the creation and deployment of networks and communications. But, just as fundamentally, it is for state and local authorities to shape the economic strategies of those places in which networks have been, or are yet to be, deployed and used. 

In the story of the railroads, the federal role was elemental. But the path of transcontinental railroad travel was also shaped by two very different local decisions, which Tom Wheeler highlights in his new book, “From Guttenberg to Google: The History of our Future.” In Lincoln’s home state, Chicago wanted the railroad. Its leaders spent money, enlisted political support, and pushed aggressively for the lines to the east and west to meet in Chicago. That could have been the fate of St. Louis, Missouri, but for the decision of its local leaders to protect incumbent barge operators by refusing to build a railroad bridge across the Missouri River. The impact for Chicago was profound: Railroads were a critical factor in driving Chicago’s growth in the late 19th and early Twentieth Centuries.

The expansion of railroads that Lincoln supported helps explain why, in the coming decade, state and local decision-makers must play an important role in charting the course of broadband deployment and usage — with the support of the federal government.

The federal government, of course, has played a critical role in the advancement of broadband. For example, the federal government manages spectrum; has sped the availability and use of broadband, and has empowered schools, libraries, and rural healthcare facilities., while expanding broadband adoption through the Lifeline program. And the federal government is in a very good position to collect information on the deployment of broadband – data that can improve decision-making at all levels of government.

But it is state and local leaders that can best knit these initiatives together in order to integrate broadband deployment and use into regional and local economic strategies. Not every initiative will work everywhere and, like all experiments, some may fail. But there is strength in these laboratories of the states, counties, cities, and within communities.

Leadership is being provided through a variety of efforts that include:

State Governments: In their 2019 State-of-the-State Addresses, newly-elected governors have issued calls to action. In South Dakota, Republican Governor Kristi Noem emphasized the importance of bringing broadband to rural areas, explaining that “[g]eograhic location no longer has to be a barrier to participating in the global economy.” Similarly, Governor Jared Polis (D-CO) called on legislators to work together to expand access because “broadband is critical infrastructure that everyone must have access to.”

Municipal and County Governments: The National League of Cities, more than two-thousand strong, recognizes that “[b]roadband access and adoption help promote economic development.” And more than 200 major cities and towns have also joined together as Next Century Cities in pursuit of broadband networks that will “attract new business and create jobs,” among other important social goals.  In these new broadband laboratories, diverse strategies are blooming, including:

  • Governmental public-private partnerships with commercial Internet providers, as  in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois;
  • Construction of open-access networks by which cities and counties supply middle-mile access to internet-service providers that are, in turn, the suppliers of retail services, as in Grant County, Washington, and Kent County, Maryland;
  • Support for the expansion of rural electric cooperatives into broadband deployment, a nationwide development found in places served by the Ozarks Electric Cooperative in Arkansas or the new construction of broadband by the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative;
  • Municipal operation of broadband networks to provide internet access directly to residents and businesses in big cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, and much smaller towns like Norwood, Massachusetts;
  • Implementation of strategies to encourage use of broadband, illustrated by Kansas City Missouri’s Digital Equity Strategic Plan, which is designed to empower residents to “take advantage of online learning and training opportunities, participate in the sharing economy or e-commerce.”

And community-focused foundations are pitching in. Like the Blandin Foundation, which focuses on strengthening rural Minnesota. Or the Cleveland Foundation’s Digital Excellence Initiative which ensures that all residents of the Greater Cleveland area can successfully enter the digital world and economy.

Consider Emporia, Kansas, which was known as a leading railroad hub in the 19th Century. Local leaders now have launched a business-incubator initiative. That strategy hopes to attract new, innovative businesses by taking advantage of local assets that include its own fiber network (built with local investment); non-profit leadership; available commercial real estate; and a partnership with Emporia State University. As the executive director of local non-profit, Emporia Main Street, explained: “Broadband is the new railroad.”

Throughout the history of the Republic, support for communications networks – with distinct, crucial leadership roles at the federal and state/local levels – has worked to spark economic growth and increase individual opportunity. States, counties, cities, and communities should play a critical role as we chart the route for the broadband of our future.


Jonathan Sallet is a Benton Senior Fellow. He works to promote broadband access and deployment, to advance competition, including through antitrust, and to preserve and protect internet openness. He is the former-Federal Communications Commission General Counsel (2013-2016), and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Litigation, Antitrust Division, US Department of Justice (2016-2017). 

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.


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