The Killer App of 1900

By Glenn Fleishman December 11, 2009

It's instructional to look back 100 years, not long after the first electrical generation plants were built to bring power to towns and cities, to assess the situation we find ourselves in with broadband availability today.

At the turn of the century, electricity was largely used for electrical lighting to replace gas lighting. Gas required distribution of a flammable substance all over a city, and wasn't practical outside of dense, urban areas. Electrical power also needed to be distributed, but the generation source—coal or water—could be in one place.

A hundred years ago, lighting was the killer app for electricity, the thing that made it worthwhile to have installed. No one particularly understood what else electricity might bring to the mass market, because other uses were generally specialized, the province of experts, the wealthy, or industry. Compressors to allow refrigeration and freezing, electric heat, and other innovations came later to homes.

Arguments raged from the start of electrical power generation against municipal ownership of utilities, partly for practical reasons: Many early efforts around the world had led to huge debt and poor operations when cities got involved. But the experience wasn't uniform, and neither was the quality of privately owned enterprises.

In researching a KUOW segment airing soon about the digital divide and Seattle's particular problems with broadband, I found this marvelous statement from Oct. 24, 1905, in the Richmond, Virginia, Times-Dispatch newspaper. A lawyer named Henry Anderson was arguing on behalf of two clients of the city who didn't want to be taxed to pay for a municipal utility. Among other arguments against municipal ownership, he said, eloquently:

"Unless we adopt the principles of socialism, It can hardly be contended that It is the province of government, either state or municipal, to undertake the manufacture or supply of the ordinary subjects of trade and commerce, or to impose burdens upon the whole community for the supposed benefit of a few....

"The ownership and operation of municipal light plants stands upon a different basis from that of the ownership of water works, with which it is so often compared. Water is a necessity to the health and life of every individual member of a community...It must be supplied in order to preserve the public health, whether it can be done profitably or not, and must be furnished, not to a few individuals, but to every individual.

"Electric lights are different. Electricity is not in any sense a necessity, and under no conditions is it universally used by the people of a community. It is but a luxury enjoyed by a small proportion of the members of any municipality, and yet if the plant be owned and operated by the city, the burden of such ownership and operation must be borne by all the people through taxation.

"Now, electric light is not a necessity for every member of the community. It Is not the business of any one to see that I use electricity, or gas, or oil in my house, or even that I use any form of artificial light at all."

Unlike water, which had but a few purposes and was hard to turn to others, electricity was a different kind of technology, and contemporary citizens had a difficult time seeing past Edison's light bulbs and Times Square.

The opinion of the lawyer wasn't unusual, either: Electricity should go to people who had money, not hooked up willy-nilly to everyone. And why should a city support through tax dollars--regardless of the potential of repaying costs through revenue later—such universal availability?

Rural America, where 60 percent of the US population lived in 1900 and 45 percent by 1930, didn't get electricity on any broad scale until the 1930s with FDR's initiatives. Only 10 percent of rural homes had electricity in 1930; nearly half by 1945—at which point under 40 percent of Americans lived outside cities.

FDR powered the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration, which were federally mandated to bring power, and which led to municipally owned entities many of which remain public today.

The argument FDR made was that the quality of life—and clearly the economic output—of rural Americans would suffer without electricity, which in the space of a few decades had become immensely profitable for private utilities, and an absolute necessity.

Undoubtedly, you  see where I've been going with all this. Broadband in 2009 is electricity in 1900. We may think we know all the means to which high-speed Internet access may be put, but we clearly do not: YouTube and Twitter prove that new things are constantly on the way and will emerge as bandwidth and access continues to increase.

Like electricity, the notion of whether broadband is an inherent right and necessity of every citizen is up for grabs in the US. Sweden and Finland have already answered the question: It's a birthright. Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and many European countries aren't far behind in having created the right regulatory and market conditions to bring better and affordable broadband to a greater percentage of its citizens than in the US.

In Seattle, we'll see how Mayor-Elect McGinn proceeds with a broadband plan cooked up under his predecessor (where it languished) that would let anyone in Seattle ask for and receive a fiber-optic hookup for Internet, TV, and voice at competitive rates to today's slower and funkier cable and DSL services. (As I said in today's Morning Fizz
, I'm encouraged that McGinn has kept Nickels' technology guy, Bill Schrier (the guy who came up with the plan), on board.)

The future of broadband for all is also in front of the FCC right now, with the commission soon to release recommendations about bringing broadband to all rates fast enough to support video, two-way communication, distance learning, entertainment, education, and telephony.

Interestingly, the FCC chair, Julius Genachowski, is thinking along the lines of electricity. The Washington Post says he's reading Nicholas Carr's book about the birth of electrical generation, The Big Switch
, which I have not yet read.

The FCC head said recently, "Our electric grid was the platform for innovation that, as much as anything, helped propel the United States to global economic leadership in the 20th century. Our broadband grid has the potential to play the same role for the 21st century. Where we once had electricity-driven appliances, we now have information-fueled applications."

Of course, maybe that's only for those that can afford it.
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