Rural America should pay attention to Elizabeth Warren

(Updated because my husband pointed out I had a number wrong in the broadband calculation and it’s even worse that I’d said, plus another detail or two.)

I haven’t heard any other presidential candidate (including the president) talking about rural issues the way Elizabeth Warren has. It’s pretty easy to forget about rural America; most American’s don’t live there and the numbers aren’t going up – there’s a longstanding trend of more and more Americans living in urban areas, and that’s unsurprising; cities are the engines of the American economy.

And while some try to describe this as an urban vs rural divide, that’s really dumb. Not that there aren’t plenty of clear differences in voting patterns and attitudes separating urban and rural America but it plays into this idea that one can live without the other, which just ignores reality.

Rural America produces things urban America needs (food, wind energy, etc.), not too mention the harder to quantify importance of having rural places to go visit and experience (something urban Americans love to do). Also, um, oxygen and clean water, which are kind of important. Meanwhile, despite the mythos of independent rural Americans who will tell you they don’t need big cities, rural America as we know it wouldn’t exist without lots of urban tax dollars; and urban markets for its production; I don’t think most rural Americans would like their communities so much if they didn’t have electricity, phones, hospitals, highways, or anybody to sell their crops to.

So it’s pretty refreshing to see an urban, liberal presidential candidate talking about what she’d do to help rural communities. And one piece of that is initiatives to get better broadband service in those places, which has led to a predictable chorus of conservatives muttering about socialism and how government broadband would clearly be a nightmare up there with horrible government programs like “daily mail delivery” and “interstate highways” I guess.

Internet Access In Rural Areas

This is the one bit of rural life I am pretty familiar with. Yes, I am a city dweller; however, we do have a property out in the Texas Hill Country that we spend time at and may retire to (who knows?). (Yes, we are privileged; no, it’s not the same as actual living full time in a rural area; however, it means I have experience with getting broadband service in a rural area).

So what is that like? Let’s have a look.

Let’s start with a baseline comparison. In Houston, I have fiber service from one of the big nasty telecoms that gives me 1000 Mbps downloads for about $100/month. It’s very reliable (don’t ask me to repeat that during one of the occasional outages while I’m cursing).

So out in the country, what do we have? Well, we just upgraded! If we lived in one of the larger communities nearby we could get broadband from the cable company or via DSL. But, we don’t; we’re in an unincorporated part of the county on an 11 acre patch of land in the hills. Thanks to the magic of urban tax money being redistributed according to need, we have electricity and phone service. We have well water and propane delivery and a septic field.

For internet, there is basically one choice: satellite service. (There is a local provider who delivers broadband via mobile networks, but we’re not in line of sight from a tower, so that wasn’t an option.) So we have satellite service that gives us 25 Mbsp downloads. It costs $185/month.

So let’s just compare cost there – per Mbps, the super reliable fiber service in Houston costs $0.10/Mbps. The satellite service in the country costs $7.40/Mbps – that’s right, 74 times as expensive.

Now, for us, privileged city boys that we are, that’s really just annoying. We’re talking about burdens like “you can’t stream Netflix so you’d better download something at home in the city if you want to watch it this weekend” and “boy, it’s sort of annoying to go online and pay my bills out here.” If, however, you are a full time resident out there, this is an enormous economic issue. This is your access to the broader world, a tool your kids need doing homework, the way you look for a job or access social services or a hundred other things. And it’s really expensive.

Also: not that reliable. It’s not terrible. But it’s satellite service, it’s cranky when it rains a lot, it’s just not the same quality as fiber that runs into your house.

This is what the free market is willing to delivery to our little slice of country living. And I can’t really knock the the big telecoms for it; it is expensive to run these services out to relatively remote places. Of course they’re going to wire up everybody in town and not bother out where our place is.

And that’s why what Warren is talking about is really important. It’s nothing revolutionary; it’s the same approach that got rural America electrical power. It’s the approach that led to phones being available.

I really hope rural voters will pay attention to Elizabeth Warren. I’m not hearing any other candidates talk about these issues. The current president, who enjoyed strong support from rural America, has given them a trade war that’s closing down markets for their goods and underinvestment in infrastructure, and call it “freedom.”

You know what freedom includes? Being connected to the rest of the world so you and your family have opportunities to make a living, instead of being written off because the market doesn’t find enough profit in serving you or a good business case for investing in your community.

(Disclosure: I give money to Warren’s campaign.)

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