Coleman: Broadband Efforts Take Cues from Rural Electrification

Coleman: Broadband Efforts Take Cues from Rural Electrification
Mel Coleman

Today's push to expand broadband internet access is very much like the country's effort to bring electric power to rural areas during the Great Depression and World War II, electric company executive Mel Coleman told a crowded gathering Tuesday in Little Rock.

Coleman, CEO of North Arkansas Electric Cooperative in Salem (Fulton County), spoke at the Clinton School of Public Service in his role as president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association board of directors.

Arkansas' electric cooperatives have teamed with a Clinton School practicum to focus on applying lessons from the nationwide effort to bring electrical power to farms and remote homes after passage of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.

That act, pushed through by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, provided federal loans for rural power distribution systems. Those systems were built by the nation's electric cooperatives, including the 17 cooperatives still in existence in Arkansas.

"The 1920s were roaring for some people, but not for American farms; less than 3 percent of farmers had electric power," said Coleman, who noted that farm life in those days was relatively unproductive, unsafe and a drudgery. Electric power freed rural people from an age of hand-pumped water heated on wood stoves, hand-scrubbed laundry, and risky kerosene lamps. 

"You can imagine milking cows in a wooden barn, with straw floor, and a kerosene lamp waiting to be kicked over," he said.

The national cooperative effort at electrification overcame the reluctance of private utilities to extend service to sparsely populated regions, Coleman said, and eventually was a huge success. By the 1950s, nearly all farms had electrical power, according to economist Laurence J. Malone, and the federal electrification loans were paid back on time and with interest, Coleman said.

Coleman related that history to the present — and the future — by noting the fledgling effort by cooperatives to give their members high-speed broadband. He noted a recent New York Times article that quoted Clinton Creason of Zena, Oklahoma, a member of the Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, who recalled when electricity came to his father's farm, and how broadband followed 70 years later. "He said the co-op is doing it again, but the light bulb is now the internet."

Coleman said two Arkansas cooperatives have broadband "on the drawing board" for their customers, and that his cooperative, NAEC, was "already hanging fiber as we speak."

"Reliable high-speed internet is critical to attracting new employers to small communities," he said. "And look at what it could do for education, and health care, and for all those Amazon shoppers."

On a more serious note, he said that the NRECA opposes the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which was announced in 2015 but remains mired in court challenges. Coleman said America's electric cooperatives are open to all power sources and committed to increased use of renewables, but he noted that cooperatives get much of their power from coal-fired plants, and that the Clean Power Plan would put many of those plants in jeopardy.

The irony about that reliance on coal power, he said, is that the use of coal power is largely a holdover from the days after the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, a time when the government mandated that electric cooperatives switch to domestic power sources, and specifically coal.

Those power plants were built for many decades of use, he said, and to shut them down now and build alternative generation facilities would mean that cooperative members would be "essentially paying for that power twice."