I took a call from National Public Radio the other day, which I concede is not a regular occurrence.
The reporter, who was familiar with electric co-ops, was interested in what Congress and the president could do to meet the moment on energy issues, much as they had done in 1936 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress worked together to pass the Rural Electrification Administration.
Because my book “Power Plays” covers the story of the genesis of REA, the reporter asked if our political leaders could come together during the middle of a global pandemic and economic catastrophe and do something as similarly ambitious as electrifying the nation—such as tackling climate change.
It is an interesting parallel, but I told him Congress may be reluctant to take on climate change in the middle of a recession. Instead, I suggested broadband as a golden opportunity for our nation’s leaders to demonstrate they could still do big, bold things.
If the global pandemic has shown us anything, it is being connected no matter where you are is the key to progress. Just ask any 11- or 15-year old. Not coincidentally, those are the ages of my kids. They have spent the past three months on Zoom and other technologies I had never heard of before the advent of COVID-19.
The Case family is lucky. We have access to broadband. But according to federal data, about 14% of households with school-age children do not have internet access. Most of those are in households that make less than $50,000 a year and live in rural areas. That is why many Oregon electric cooperatives have invested in broadband or are seriously considering getting involved in the business—if it makes sense.
Recently, my smartphone-obsessed daughter was in my office looking at a map on the wall of America’s electric cooperatives.
“You have so much of the land,” she said.
I told her our history. No one wanted to provide electricity to all that land, and that is why electric cooperatives exist. We are here to fill a need no one else wants to fill.
As I told the NPR reporter, that moment has come again—and it is not just Washington, D.C.’s job to make it happen. In the 1930s, REA may have been the catalyst, but it was the sweat of rural leaders that brought the countryside out of darkness. Deploying broadband to the last mile will take that same of relentless commitment. All things considered, it will help us make history again.