Federal officials are debating subsidizing broadband Internet connections for low-income households, on the theory that an Internet connection is becoming a basic necessity. The debate echoes one in the late 1940s over the extension of telephone lines to rural areas.
In a 1984 paper for Agricultural History, Don F. Hadwiger and Clay Cochran explain how federal intervention brought telephones to large swaths of the country. They start their story in Iowa around the turn of the twentieth century, when towns got electricity and phone lines while the surrounding farms did not.
“Life in the two places became so different that town mothers in Jefferson, Iowa, tried to spare their daughters from marriage into an onerous farm life,” they write.
Starting in 1935, the federal Rural Electrification Administration used low-cost financing to spread electric service to most farms. But telephone service lagged behind, particularly in the South. In 1945, only 5 percent of farms in Alabama had phone service.
A plan to extend the REA’s efforts to phone lines met opposition from its for-profit competitors and from advocates of free enterprise who saw the agency as a bit too socialistic. Some argued that if there was really a strong demand for phones on farms, the market would provide them. Those testifying against the final bill included the regional Bell phone company presidents, while supporters included major farm groups like the Grange.
After much debate, the law authorizing REA financing of phone lines passed in 1949. By 1978, the program had financed 800,000 miles of rural telephone lines. The percentage of farms with phones rose from 32 percent in 1945 to 49 percent in 1954 and 76 percent in 1964.
In its quest to provide coverage to customers scattered over large areas, REA helped modernize phone line materials. It paid for the development of electronic telephone carrier equipment that allowed a wire that had previously covered eight subscribers to serve up to 48.
Further technological development allowed large central offices to serve areas that would previously have required multiple small offices, and created equipment that could survive being hit by lightning. REA even built a laboratory to test telephone sets, making sure its borrowers used the best-available equipment.
By the time Hadwiger and Cochran’s paper was published in 1984, the problem of rural telephone access was mostly solved. However, many poor people simply couldn’t pay for service no matter where they lived. The next year, the FCC Lifeline program began offering discounted phone service to low-income people, helping to solve this problem. Today, landlines are no longer a necessity for many of us, but broadband is arguably at least as important as phone service was to farmers in 1949.