The Rural Utilities Service Is No REA

And Obama Is No FDR

The Crestone community, despite its international reach, is isolated by an apathetic internet service provider. The Fairpoint Communications system is a klunker, and the small-town phone company has no announced intention to update it.

A 1937 REA poster by artist Lester Beall

Crestone-Baca  is not on an equal footing with most of the nation in the category of  affordable high-speed internet service. This affects visitors from around the world trying to make reservations at the spiritual centers, home businesses trying to market their handicrafts and other goods, or local people simply trying to place internet orders, communicate with each other, and read a few  blogs. The saddest result is the competitive disadvantage the outdated system here imposes on young people growing up in the digital age. 

Internet  customers here were asked by an independent group to use a standard test to determine their data speeds and report them to the broadband agency of the governor’s office. The graphed results show a median internet download speed of  o.50 mps and an upload sped of 0.25 mps – compared with the FCC definition of broadband as 4.00 mps.

Such are my ruminations as I sit waiting before a systemically stalled computer screen, wasting away in the shadow of dialup-era internet service and hoping President Obama has not forgotten his various pledges to bring affordable broadband internet service to all Americans. But I wonder what government can do. Can it break the surly bonds of the telecom industry, which is busy lobbying for laws that prohibit communities from creating their own data networks? A sad state of affairs. But then I  recall an inspiring visit I made a couple of years ago to a small museum at a state park down in Georgia.

The exhibits commemorate the achievements of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now, he is an unlikely Georgia hero in today’s Newty politics, but in the 1930’s Democrats were quite comfortable in the South. The museum is on the grounds of FDR’s “Little White House,”  his modest retreat near the therapeutic pools of Warm Springs, where he died at the outset of his fourth term in April 1945 (no term limit then). In the museum is a replica of a 1930’s farm house kitchen, modernized. No more wood burning cook stove, ice box and kerosene lanterns – it has electric power, dramatized by a classic meter, as glassy and ostentatious as a TV screen in the early 1950’s.

FDR was beloved in poor rural America – and the agrarian South was more impoverished than elsewhere – if  for no other reason than that meter on the wall in the model kitchen. When he took office in 1933 just over 10 per cent of U.S. farms  had electricity. By 1942, in the middle of his third term,  50 per cent of the farms had electricity – no small statistic in a time when at least  half the population lived on farms.

This  fundamental of modernization, was the work of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA)  authorized by the core legislation of the New Deal in 1935. Because the  power companies would not go into  rural areas, America lagged behind Europe where 90 percent of the farms had power. FDR’s REA began financing and organizing non-profit rural electric cooperatives (the San Luis Valley REC was founded in 1938), and the wiring of non-urban America surged. Not only did the REA bring the country “LIGHT,” as one REA poster proclaimed, it also created jobs in the midst of the Great Depression.

By 1952 the government could say 100 per cent of America had reliable electric power.  Today the successor of the REA is a major division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Rural Utilities Service. The  main business of the RUS is power, but it has a telecommunications subdivision, and this would be the logical agency to take the lead in creating the digital-age equivalent of the rural electrification movement that began 75 years ago.

Back to the future: President Obama first stated his intention to bring broadband to rural America in a talk just after his election. Then in March 2009 he announced his intention to allocate $8 billion, most of it from the emergency stimulus bill, to broadband access. Conservatives on Fox News called it a boondoggle. Some said most Americans don’t want and can’t afford high-speed internet.

That was more than three years ago. What has happened? Well, Obama is no FDR. He is no John F. Kennedy, who began the manned space program. He is no Dwight D. Eisenhower, who launched the interstate highway system.  These were presidents who could have their way with the Congress.

At any rate, the emergency broadband money never reached our  rural community. The presidential pledge, however, was renewed  in this year’s state of the union address.  Obama set a revised goal of making a new technology, 4G wireless internet, accessible to 98 per cent of Americans.

On March 4, the RUS of the USDA filed notice in the Federal Register that it was accepting applications for a “Community Connect Grant Program,” with a deadline of May 3. The one-time grants from a $25 million fund would help set up broadband service in rural communities without it. In a news release at the same time RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein said, “Broadband is an important part of the Obama Administration’s effort to help rural America ‘win the future.'”

This spelled opportunity for rural communities where private enterprise was not providing broadband service. Right away Crestone Mayor Ralph Abrams brought together volunteers and got to work. For the next month and a half his task force met on Saturdays at the Black Bear Cafe, gathering demographic data, documenting community needs, soliciting letters of support, calculating a budget, making a business plan, exploring sources of the 15 per cent matching funds, getting construction estimates and reviewing available technology – things required by the 50-page grant application guide. (I contributed the writing of a cover letter.)

As the deadline neared,  the RUS scheduled a big rural broadband workshop for April 20-21 at the Downtown Denver Sheraton. Mayor Abrams was among the hopeful officials from around the nation seeking pieces of the grant pie. Adelstein opened the event with an announcement, in the name of the Obama administration, of $40 million in RUS loans, most of them to telephone companies, for rural broadband projects.  But that was loans, not grants.

Then Abrams and others received some totally unanticipated news, and it was bad news. Community Connect desk officers who had come to Denver from Washington – Long Chen and Janet Malaki – disclosed with great sympathy that the grant money was no longer available.

All that work: poof!

Abrams just wanted to walk out, but he had gone to a lot of trouble, so he stayed and listened. He and others heard about loans (not grants), none of which he was prepared to seek. To get a loan, the record seems to show, you need to be a phone company.

So what happened to the $25 million? I called the RUS telecom division in Washington. Malaki declined comment, referring me to her supervisor, Laurel Feverrier. I called her and after a long delay was told she was not at her desk. I left a voice message stating the question and begging for a response from her or her press secretary, even though I was not a Washington-based journalist. She did not return the call. Next day I sent her an email with the same question and plea. She did not respond.

The likely suspects in the case of the vanishing broadband grant money are telecom lobbyists and, well, the Republicans. The April 13 Continuing Resolution of Congress to fund federal government for the rest of the fiscal year makes a $16 million budget reduction in the USDA category of “distant learning, telemedicine, and broadband program loans and grants.” That must have been the trigger, even though it is  no more than a shaving off the RUS telecom budget item that comprised $1.4 billion for the loans and $55 million for the grants.

The mayor and some of his volunteers came home discouraged. They put the money mystery behind them. And they regrouped: this time, with the goal of bringing broadband to Crestone (and the northern San Luis Valley) without having to rely on the government. They are recreating a non-profit corporation, Crestone Peak, so that it can bring in a broadband “backhaul” from a provider interested in the San Luis Valley and then set up the “last mile” connectivity. A Colorado statute calls for a referendum when a community seeks to do this, but that should be no problem here. The dream of Crestone Peak is affordable high-speed internet by August.

Footnote: While internet services took a hit, the electric power loan money in the RUS budget  was not directly affected  by the Continuing Resolution. And, like a pie in the face, at the same time Crestone was being told to go back to the drawing board, two huge power entities announced they are seeking untold millions of that RUS power money for a project people around here hate.  The announcement by Xcel Energy and Tri-State State Generation in mid April was in  a mass-mailing to the San Luis Valley seeking popular support in hearings on the loan application, to be scheduled later this year.

The  handsomely illustrated mailer promoted a transmission line that would connect the San Luis Valley with the switching yards at its Calumet coal-fired power plant.  The high-voltage power line, with its tall steel towers, will have to cross the mountains near La Veta Pass.  The opposition is based on two main arguments. First,  the routing will invade some pristine mountain habitat, private and public.  Second, the power line will  enable giant solar power developments in the valley – with their production going to the Excel grid. This industrialization would have  consequences for  rural life and the environment in the valley.

I cannot help but see an irony here (and there’s  plenty of time for ironical thinking as I wait for a New York Times story  to load  on my computer screen). The Rural Utilities Service, successor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s REA, now seems to be predominantly in the business of making favorable loans to phone companies and power companies.

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