Rural Electrification Administration workers erecting power lines in the 1930s. Credit National Archives and Records Administration
ZENA, Okla. — From the sofa in his living room, Clinton Creason can see the electric pole outside that his father staked 70 years ago to bring power to this remote area of hilly cattle pastures.
Electricity came late here but transformed life on the farm. It provided bright light to study by and freed families from the tedium of washing clothes by hand and cutting wood for the cook stove.
Last December, Mr. Creason saw a new addition to the utility pole erected by his father that may be just as transformational — a subsidiary of his local electric cooperative, Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, hung a fiber optic cable on it. That enabled Mr. Creason and the 120 residents of Zena, Okla., to pump high-speed internet service into their homes for the first time.“The cooperative is doing it again, but now the light bulb is the internet,” said Mr. Creason, 82.
Mr. Creason’s experience with the electric co-op puts him at the leading edge of a trend unfolding in hard-to-reach rural spots nationwide. For years, such communities have largely been left out of the digital revolution because they had only intermittent internet access, often through a patchwork of satellite, dial-up or wireless service. Telecom and cable companies shunned the areas because it was too expensive to bring equipment and service over long distances to so few people.
Now high-speed internet is finally reaching these remote places, but not through the telecom and cable companies that have wired most of urban America. Instead, local power companies are more often the broadband suppliers — and to bring the service, they are borrowing techniques and infrastructure used to electrify the United States nearly a century ago. In some cases, rural municipalities are also using electrification laws from the early 1900s to obtain funds and regulatory permissions reserved for utilities, in order to offer broadband. Continue reading