How are telecommunications network development priorities shaped? Recent news stories shed some light. A profit motive is overwhelming other social objectives in network infrastructure projects, from utility poles throughout rural areas to Arctic Ocean fiber-optic cables.

Utility Poles

In the US, it is a given that broadband infrastructure will not be built out unless there is money to be made – because business interests have been permitted to provide internet access across the country. The COVID pandemic made the results clear, as people in poor and rural areas struggled to access the internet – which is no longer a luxury but a necessity for work, school, and life in general.

The pandemic that claimed over one million lives in the US propelled federal intervention to expand broadband infrastructure, by allocating $65 billion as part of the Infrastructure Investment Bill and American Jobs Act (IIJA) in 2021.[1] In 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it would fund over $1.2 billion to expand broadband services in rural areas as part of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund involving 23 broadband providers.[2]

This is good news to be sure; however, a contest between opposed corporate interests erupted around a 19th-century invention that is still crucial to today’s broadband infrastructure – utility poles – stymieing the FCC’s plan.[3]

Utility poles are so ubiquitous as to be nearly unseen in our built environment. However, in order to build broadband infrastructure, internet providers must either lease access to existing networks of poles, or install their own new poles to attach their cables and hardware. Both of these are expensive and politically-charged options.


IO has been on a long hiatus, but we’re coming back this year. The world is in dire circumstances, facing poverty, war, diseases, and climate catastrophes. However, critical political economic analyses on global information and communications that affect those issues are difficult to find in corporate media. By renewing IO, we hope to draw attention to the underlying structural forces that shape the information and communication systems as well as local and international struggles to transform the world so that vital information systems and resources are redesigned and reallocated for social needs. Please look out for new posts from IO. 

As a kick-off, we want to announce Dan Schiller’s newly released book, Crossed Wires, published by Oxford University Press. It’s a timely book to help us to understand how, for what purpose, by whom, and under what conditions US telecommunications networks were built and rebuilt over the decades. And here is a short description of the book: 

Telecommunications networks are vast, intricate, hugely costly systems for exchanging messages and information-within cities and across continents. From the Post Office and the telegraph to today’s internet, these networks have sown domestic division while also acting as sources of international power.

In Crossed Wires, Dan Schiller, who has conducted archival research on US telecommunications for more than forty years, recovers the extraordinary social history of the major network systems of the United States. Drawing on arrays of archival documents and secondary sources, Schiller reveals that this history has been shaped by sharp social and political conflict and is embedded in the larger history of an expansionary US capitalism. Schiller argues that networks have enabled US imperialism through a a recurrent “American system” of cross-border communications. Three other key findings wind through the book. First, business users of networks–more than carriers, and certainly more than residential users–have repeatedly determined how telecommunications systems have developed. Second, despite their current importance for virtually every sphere of social life, networks have been consecrated above all to aiding the circulation of commodities. Finally, although the preferences of executives and officials have broadly determined outcomes, these elites have repeatedly had to contend against the ideas and organizations of workers, social movement activists, and other reformers.

This authoritative and comprehensive revisionist history of US telecommunications argues that not technology but a dominative–and contested–political economy drove the evolution of this critical industry.

Dan Schiller, Crossed Wires: The Conflicted History of US Telecommunications, From The Post Office To The Internet (Oxford University Press, 2023)