How electricity became a right, and what it means for broadband

Glenn Fleishman's "The Killer App of 1900" draws striking parallels between the present-day debate over the necessity of Internet access and the early 20th century debate over the necessity of electricity. In the early days of electrification, electricity was a luxury, providing lights to a few people who chose electric over gas. The idea that electricity was a necessity (let alone a right) was widely held to be absurd. But because of the many applications for electric power, electrification quickly grew to be central in most Americans' lives, and many electrification projects were ultimately taken on by governments, from the local to the national (FDR's Rural Electrification Act).
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 Killer App of 1900 (via /.)

(Image: File:TVA water supply Wilder.gif, Wikimedia Commons)


  1. Does it matter?

    As long as the Telecoms are gonna be in charge of the networks, most americans would be better off without them.

    That is, unless the people who are going to pay for the broadband rollout actually get to be the owners of the network. Got some great deals on bridges and land in florida for anyone interested.

  2. While I agree broadband is nice, I no more believe it is a ‘right’ than I believe a television is right. The comparison of broadband to electricity is flawed.

    First, what does electricity provide us and why is it so important? Food, clothing, shelter.

    Food – refrigerator, cooking for most people. I personally use gas, but I do use an electric rice cooker, and I’d be lost without a place to store all my perishables.

    Clothing, most people don’t bother sewing their own clothing any more, but many people still do use sewing machines to fix things hem things up, etc. Even I know how to use one.

    Shelter. I used to work on new house construction and have seen first hand the amount of tools used in its creation. While it may be possible to make a house in modern times without the use of electricity, it will take longer, and thus cost more. (Time = money) One of the first things provided before the house is even built is electricity.

    What exactly does broadband provide us? Any essential service? It can be stretched to include such things. I can order food, clothing, and tool over the internet. I can use it as a phone replacement, which I actually do.

    Effectively, however, it does little more than a television and a telephone does right now. And your television is certainly not a right. In fact, many people argue it’s a complete waste of time! (I certainly won’t argue against that!)

    While I do believe that broadband should be a service provided to all, just as telephones and electricity are, I honestly don’t believe it’s a right.

    When things like free books (library services), free education (schools), reliable telephone communications, and jobs for the masses, rather than the privileged few are talked about and implemented, perhaps broadband will become not only important to have, but essential. Right now, it’s little more than a toy for most of the people that use it.

    I also realize that every one of these arguments can turned to favor broadband as a right. Still, I don’t believe broadband is anything more than a glorified television. An entertainment center for most. I know I find it pretty entertaining.

  3. @#2
    I suspect people managed to have food, clothing, and shelter in the years before the grid. Electricity just provided a much more convenient way to access them (although personally I don’t own a sewing machine)

    However I think your point was that the internet is like tv: entertainment. And that entertainment shouldn’t be a ‘right’ because it is nonessential and somewhat frivolous.

    However, I think that we are already seeing a transition of public services moving to the internet- bill paying, vehicle registration, tax submission, the booking of reservations with government officials and doctors. Real-world mechanisms to do these things still exist, but I think they are already becoming vestigial- much like the real world record store. I don’t think that it is at all unreasonable to suggest that in a number of years, the convenience of being able to do these myriad tasks from home (often in an automated fashion) will be directly comparable to the convenience afforded by electricity.

  4. While its true, telecoms won’t let go as long as there is money to be made/squeezed out of the consumer. Positioning broadband as an innovative tool is easy, look at the things you can do with the internet, with social networking. Sure there is a lot of frivolous shit people do (twitters about taking a poo) but securing a broadband net work could allow for wonderful things to happen. Real-time voting and approval of new bills and legislation, both at the state and national level.

    A new level of checks and balances would arise, and you would have a permanent record of a politicians record, no more conveniently forgetting that gay affair he had 6 months ago, while he tries to pass new legislation banning gay marriage. Sure we might loose something in the process, maybe the illusion of privacy we have now, but in the end I think we would be for the better.

  5. The mythology is that the reason we have awful government, it because sinister corporations behind the scenes control our government… and that if everyone has access to an asymmetric media like the internet, we will be able to see the “uncensored truth”, take back our democratic process, and vote in a benevolent government… and therefore the internet is as vital to free speech and the democratic process

    Of course, in reality, our government pretty much reflects populist opinion, and is extremely democratic (probably too democratic, often ignoring the constitution and human rights to indulge whatever the populist moral panic of the day is)… and largely the internet will be a convenient way to view porn, lolcats, post embarrassing pictures on facebook, and for birthers and truthers and AGW deniers and AIDS skeptics and anti-vaxers and creationists to promote the “truth”.

    Don’t get me wrong, I would like to see nearly universal internet access… fiber optics is cheaper and cleaner than roads and rail, so there is very pragmatic reasons for universal high speed internet access as basic infrastructure for commerce and such. But I think that the techno-utopians are going to be sadly disappointed when their mythology proves false.

  6. When rural electrification came to town, it was not to “enlighten” (pun intended) the farms.

    In order for your farming community to get access to centrally produced power (often generated with publicly owned resources, such as overland water flow, by cronies of Washington politicos who recieved sweetheart contracts and taxpayer funds for building) you had to destroy any electricity-generating windmills or waterwheels known to exist in the community. Otherwise, your entire town got no juice.

    If you were a self-sufficient farmer with a long-case Jake wind genny making power for your home, and you refused to sign up for TVA power, you just might find a mob with pitchforks and torches at your door, Dr. Frankenstein! That mob might be your neighbors, or it might be whoever was on Skid Row that day needing a quarter to buy a bucket of beer, depending on how scrupulous your local would-be electricity mogul was.

    Because the rural electrification goon squads did not usually check to see if the windmills were actually destroyed – they just made sure the tower had been taken down – many of the wonderful old Jacobs wind generators (which cannot really be duplicated today because of the overharvesting of Sitka Spruce) got hidden under hay bales in the loft for 50 years, and are now being resurrected to spin again.

    For a favored few, the rural electrification program was a way seize a nearly infinite source of wealth by preventing local sustainable power generation. For the politicians, it was a way to create jobs for restless hordes of jobless Americans and thus stay in office.

    Perhaps rural electrification was what prevented local sustainable power generation from being the norm in the United States, and allowed the dirty energy tycoons who are currently wrecking the atmosphere to gain and hold power. Or perhaps this sort of thing is an evolutionary step in human society; first the super-greedy seize control of a newly profitable resource, then they pass control to their offspring, who over time become weak and incompetent, the common people subvert them, rinse, lather, repeat.

  7. Well, this is kind of silly, as electricity isn’t a right in the U.S. There are no legal protections guaranteeing a citizen’s “right to electricity”. If you can’t pay your electric bill, your electricity is turned off, and the police don’t go arrest the president of the electric company for doing so.

    Huge swaths of civic life are moving online, though, as Cory says. And one day soon, to disconnect a broadband hookup will jeopardize a person’s ability to pay their bills, file their taxes, and possibly even vote. It’s much closer to a right than electricity ever was.

    1. Well, this is kind of silly, as electricity isn’t a right in the U.S.

      Well, I don’t know about electricity in the US in particular, but in many places, things like electricity, telephone and so on have some form of “universal service” rule. You have to pay for them, and if you don’t pay they’ll be cut off; but on the other hand, the suppliers are rather restricted so that everyone can, in fact, get service at affordable rates.

    2. I have some property about 5 miles past the last power pole. And I’m going to be paying a nice chunk of change to put together an off-grid power system for my cabin there precisely because electricity is not a right.

      1. if this cabin is your first and only home yes you should have the right to electricity. if you own 3 houses you hardly fall under the category of people that actually needs rights. those people buy everything.

        1. True human rights aren’t affected by how many homes you own. Thanks for making my point. It’s not a right. It’s a privilege, one that can be extended – or withheld – due to many factors other than one’s humanity.

  8. People should have the right to whatever technology is necessary to fully participate in their community, whether it’s electricity, broadband, stone chisels, magic wands or whatever.

  9. This is like saying that I have a human right to be provided with science fiction novels, cantaloupe, or diamond earrings. Nobody has rights to the products of another person’s labor, unless they are freely granted.

    I’m all for the proliferation of cheap access, but a right? Come on.

  10. Most of the positives of the internet mentioned above can be adequately be handled by dial-up.
    My sewing machine has a handle so maybe I don’t need electricity either.

  11. The premise is wrong: electricity isn’t a “right.” To call it such robs the word “right” of its meaning.

    Where does “electricity” stand in the list of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” Is it as valuable as “liberty?” Is a country where not everyone has liberty (a country with slaves, perhaps) pretty much equivalent to a country where not everyone has electricity?

    No, of course not.

    If I choose build my house in the farthest reaches of Alaska, out on an island near Russia, do I have the “right” to force my country to provide my house with electricity? No., Do I still have the “right” to free speech? Of course.

    Electricity is a Good Thing. It enables the modern world to exist. It increases the probability that poor people will still survive through cold winters. It does all sorts of wonderful things that we need in order to be a first world country.

    Broadband is also a Good Thing. It enables communication and commerce. It does all sorts of wonderful things that we need in order to be a first world country. A government may well find that increasing access to broadband to all its citizens would do amazing things for the health of the country.

    But it’s not a “right” any more than electricity is.

  12. Maybe it would be more appropriate to promote the right to access, not guarantee that you can have it. No one should be able to deny your right to to do whatever you need to do to get Internet (find a wireless hotspot, string cable, set up a satellite dish), but simply having it handed to you is not necessarily a right.

    Virtually all public libraries have public Internet access, but they vary wildly in how they allow people to get online. This includes checks and balances that usually prevent someone from coming in daily and camping out on one of a limited number of public access terminals from opening to closing (allocation of resources). They also generally frown on patrons using library electrical outlets to recharge their iPod batteries or make coffee.

  13. as several people already noticed neither electricity nor broadband are legal rights at this moment save a couple of countries (for example in Germany the electric company cannot cut off electricity to certain protected categories of people like pregnant women, even if they don’t pay the bills). so as long as you have to pay they are not “rights” but services.

    should they be free rights? by all means yes. basic service like a minimum electric line and say 768kbps dsl should be free or sold at a nominal low price for all.

    as for those who say that electricity isn’t THAT important after all, try living without for 48 hours and see if you could be still free to pursuit happiness. i doubt that you could even survive specially in an urban environment.

  14. @SamSam,
    “If I choose build my house in the farthest reaches of Alaska, out on an island near Russia, do I have the “right” to force my country to provide my house with electricity? No…”

    True, but get the right lawyer and I’m sure you could sue to get the local municipalities in that part of Alaska to get you power.

    The whole idea of electricity as a right is more so having the right to have your streets lighted, to have your parks lighted. We pay taxes to the city/state for those rights. If we want lights in our homes, we pay for those lights, if we want water in our homes we pay for that. You don’t directly pay for water fountains in your community or lights in your community, just as shouldn’t have to pay directly for broadband in your community. Hell, make it free wi-fi for community areas and charge an extra tax to the populace, but if you want broadband in your home, you pay for it.

    If the network is strong enough, sell cheap internet connections at competitive rates to homes. Use that money to upgrade the network, every X months or X years. Your-Local-City Co. could disseminate the cost of broadband among hundreds of thousands of users, making it cheaper and cheaper for everyone.

  15. Are people who don’t live in the boonies affected by broadband not being a right? Not criticizing, I’m just curious about the scope of the problem.

    1. It’s not about bringing broadband to people in the boonies, it’s comparing the arguments for a right of having electricity to the right of having broadband access. The article said FDR’s argument for electricity was that it was a fundamental right to have it, a quality of living thing. Now in our day and age, you don’t have the right to it, in so much as you have the right to get it. In that respect you have the right to anything you can afford, and rightly so.

      In an ideal world, things like electricity, broadband, water, etc.. would be free. A basic human right. To work you would need to have taxes to pay for everything from the buildings to the people to run them, and society could focus on greater things than squeezing an extra buck out of each other.

      Cory’s other post about Mr. Malamud’s “By The People” fits nicely with this discussion, as maybe the most viable argument for free broadband. Think of broadband being a right so one can access and participate with one’s own governmental processes. Provide instant feed back to your elected officials about their performance in office, tweet about their speeches in congressional meetings in real-time. Have real-time video/audio of everything your government does on capitol hill, both state and national, hell it could be the greatest reality show never aired. Along with those live broadcasts, you would have an archival back up of everything they do in office. It may even force our elected officials to actually work for us, rather than work for their own re-election.

      1. Thanks for answering the deeper question, as I was only asking with a light grasp of the precise subject matter.

        I would definitely view broadband access as an essential service, or another item that serves to measure quality of life, due to the immense potential benefit a person can yield from it (political, educational, economical, etc.).

        After that point, it becomes more of an argument between government role and true capitalism, or something along those lines, which is another discussion / flame war all together.

      2. Well isn’t that pretty much communism? Having free access to everything you need to live a basic life style?
        In turn you work and put back into the community…

        I wouldn’t go so far as call it a right, but I can understand the need to have a right for access.. Be that wifi, fiber, or some other physical mean. Technically everyone has a right to a phone (even if you don’t pay for it). You still have a right to dial 911, because you pay taxes, and probably because of certain laws that enable you to seek medical help in a time of need. So is broadband that kind of right, well I doubt it. At least not yet.

        Frankly comparing it to electricity is a little vague this early on. Give it another 30-50 years and people will probably see it as a more common part of life. Something that might actually become a requirement to live your life. Vote, pay bills, ect.. But right now, no. I’d say a large majority of the US doesn’t use the internet for those types of purposes even if they have it. (Now for a demographic that’s 40 and under that desire to have the net is much stronger).

        In my mind it’s like saying a basic cell phone should be provided to everyone…why?

        –And comparing it to electricity is not a good idea simply because without electricity your ability to exist becomes vastly more complex (ie, most heating sources do not work without electricity, including gas) Yes people live off grid, but living with ZERO electricity is usually somewhat different.–

      3. In an ideal world, things like electricity, broadband, water, etc.. would be free. A basic human right.

        Why do we need to add broadband to that list? It seems so incongruous next to water. How about cell phones?

        “In a perfect world, things like water and cell phones would be free. A basic human right.”

        Doesn’t that sound dumb? Why broadband and not cell phones?

        1. Why broadband only? Because we still live in a wired society. Because cell phones are outdated after… a year or so, based on my own uninformed poll of everyone in my immediate vicinity (me, myself, and I). Because trying to save time with an all-purpose multimedia platform in the palm of your hand never actually saves anyone any time, and would probably come with a layer of gov’t mandated “rules of contact” or such.

          And Octopod: Yes, broadband is a basic right. The USA, which has a broken, barely functional healthcare system, also has a broken, barely functional broadband network. But they’re broken in different ways, aren’t they. Healthcare isn’t so hot because of ancillary systems not working to the customers’ best interests, the actual care being par – one deciding factor being cost to the customer/patient.
          Broadband… is often limited to large population areas, and is run by corporations thinking even less about the customer than the former.

          I’m all for universal broadband, but the work needed to get the USA’s communications system (let alone power, utilities, irrigation, etc…) up to top-level quality is staggering. I don’t think it can be done within two generations – seeing as how the biggest problem the American people face is typically Congress when it comes to progress.

        2. Why do we need to add broadband to that list? It seems so incongruous next to water.

          I agree. Ability to communicate and participate in the community of humans seems like something that probably should be a basic human right, at least under supposedly representative governments, but you should have to work for your water.

          There’s easily enough broadband for everyone. Right now there is enough water for everyone, but there probably won’t be in the future if current trends continue indefinitely.

          Clean water is a limited resource – compared to broadband.

  16. I think of a right as something that should apply to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay like voting, free speech.

    I’d be cool with paying for free public internet access out of my taxes for anyone who wants to use it, otoh, providing public housing should have a higher priority.

    there’s always talk of free wifi in san francisco, but walk the 200 meters from Union Square to the bottom of the tenderloin and rly, the lives of the street ppl on Eddy rly won’t be helped that much by free wifi, and the ppl shopping in the square probably already have enough money anyways.

  17. Telecom as a “right” is debatable, but only just. After all, this is part of the reason that there are regulated utilities supplying electricity, phone service etc. They don’t have to supply to *every* house no matter how remote, but they do have to do it for all those in their service area.

    Another way to think about it is to try to get a building and/or occupancy permit (in much of U.S.) for a house with no electric service.

  18. In the first volume of Robert Caro’s epic (and still-unfinished) biography of Lyndon Johnson, he takes a chapter-long digression to describe the nearly unimaginable toil a pre-electrification farm wife endured daily until dropping into an early grave (he cites figures that it was commonplace for a farmer to outlive 3 or 4 wives).

    Much of that drudgery was due to the necessity of pumping and carrying large amounts of water from the well to the house, a task completely eliminated by electric water pumps.

  19. why is the word “goverment” a taboo for americans? you already pay taxes so what’s wrong with using the money for something useful for the people?

    western european countries are far from communist yet till 15-20 years ago all utiities where state property in most of them and even after they sold them out for nothing (or privatized them if you prefer) there was always a clause that kept the price of basic service in check. and of course access to service is mandatory for all companies.

    in greece for example (that is not even advanced as say sweden or france) water is free in most places save big cities and they have electric lines in all inhabited islands even if some of said islands have a population of 10 people. what’s wrong with that? money well spent IMHO.

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