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.
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. 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.
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.
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.