Personal tools

Disorderly Infrastructure and the Role of Government

by Christian Sandvig, originally posted at
PDF version (84KB)

Christian Sandvig (
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

forthcoming in Government Information Quarterly, 2006

Christian Sandvig
244 Lincoln Hall
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
702 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

Tel. (217) 333-0141
FAX (217) 244-1598

The articles in this volume portray government investment in wireless as a creature of recent events.1 A case can be made for government, municipal, and community wireless today because digital convergence has combined with improvements in wireless technology, changes in federal spectrum regulation, slow private wireline broadband deployment, and the recent collapse of the capital markets. This is certainly accurate, but it overstates the degree to which the current historical moment is special. This comment steps back to ask: How do infrastructures usually come to exist; and, What role would we expect governments to play in infrastructure development?2

To choose one telling comparison, at the beginning of the 20th century, the exciting technology was the plain, old telephone system. Recalling the development of this infrastructure cements the importance of government efforts in wireless today. For the last hundred years, it has been a truism in telecommunications circles that a telephone network (or any wired infrastructure) is more expensive in rural areas than urban areas. In the US, a provider might cross miles of dusty prairie with only the occasional farmer for a customer. If a telephone company did not particularly want to offer service to an isolated homestead a century ago, we cannot blame them. We do not blame them today, as rural telephone service is subsidized in many countries.

However, it has been largely forgotten that, before 1920, rural farmers in the US were more likely to have a phone than city-dwellers. In this early period, rural telephone penetration was higher, and it grew faster than it did in cities (C. S. Fischer, 1987). The explanation for this puzzle is revealing. In telephone system history, the years after the expiration of the Bell patents in the late 1890s are called, “the independent era.” By 1907, there were over 18,000 telephone systems. Some were municipal, some were cooperatives, some were experiments, some were profit-making ventures, some were investment scams, and some were illegal “wildcat” lines.

During this period, anyone could open the Montgomery-Ward mail order catalog and purchase not just a telephone but also spools of wire, insulators, lineman’s climbing spurs, and kneepads. Some systems were technically sophisticated, while others just ran the telephone current over whatever old barbed-wire fences were handy. (Some of the independents did not even have switching, or they had switching only during the day, when the farmer’s daughter was awake and near the switchboard.)

Who were these wildcat operators and independents? Looking back at the historical record, it seems that they involved all sorts of organizations, especially local governments and communities. In 1910, one could join the Liberty Home Telephone Company of Liberty, Tennessee, with three things: (1) $25, (2) a promise to donate your labor as needed, and (3) a pole. The Liberty Telephone Company was founded by a family who wanted a phone. During this period, the established telephone companies (Bell, and also, later on, large urban independent companies) were not serving rural areas because they were thought to be unprofitable. Claude Fischer’s meticulous social history of the telephone shows the problems with this thinking (C. S. Fischer, 1994).

While it is true that there were far fewer subscribers-per-mile of telephone wire in rural areas, cost included not just the amount of wire and the number of poles. More wire was used in rural areas; however, land and labor were cheaper and, most significantly, rural dwellers were willing to pay more than their urban contemporaries for telephone service. While the phone was a convenience for those living in urban areas, it was a necessity for those living in isolated areas, and they begged for it. Nonetheless, during the early part of the 20th century, the telephone companies in the US were working to generate demand among affluent citydwellers while simultaneously ignoring the pleas of rural users.

The carriers, it turns out, would not build any infrastructure for farmers because they believed farmers were stupid and poor. Fischer notes that the lack of penetration was not the result of calculations about the economics of provision but, rather, the result of cultural ideas held by providers. “Farmers as a class are…troublesome customers,” (C. S. Fischer, 1994, p. 96) a telephone company executive explained in 1903. The surviving memoranda and correspondence from the telephone industry derided the farmer’s “bumptiousness” (p. 96) and described farmers as “uneducated” (p. 98), “hard-headed, shortsighted, and tight-fisted” (p. 96).

They were prone to “misuse telephones” (p. 98). If you gave them a telephone, they would probably only want to play banjo to each other anyway, the telephone men wrote (p. 96). This sort of exclusionary reasoning was not reserved for rural customers only. Marvin (1988) observes that “arguments were made that the utility of the telephone could not be preserved without restricting its availability” (p. 101). This was both economic and cultural: prices should be kept high, but telephone subscribers should also be a certain kind of person, preferably white (e.g., see p. 94). That meant that telephones should only reach some

In summary, the historical literature often portrays the powerful communications companies of one hundred years ago as inept. They were unable to foresee or accept even profitable uses of their existing facilities that would financially benefit them. Rather than expand their customer base, they often went to great lengths to restrict it, launching campaigns to discourage idle talking on the phone and (echoing Wi-Fi) initiating legal action to prevent connection sharing by telephone subscribers paying flat rates.

Dramatic growth in telephone use eventually arrived in part because more providers were allowed to experiment with new services and build networks in new locations. There are clear and useful parallels here, and they teach the lesson that large infrastructures are not necessarily the product of large industry. Some of the rural telephone cooperatives alluded to above still exist and even thrive; others were purchased or merged and then integrated into the telephone system that is still in use today. Either way, the role of independents was crucial in facilitating development of the system as a whole. In the popular mind, infrastructures like roads and telephones are monolithic projects, centrally deployed. However, the roads in rural areas of the US were often first built by road cooperatives and neighborhood associations. Telegraphs, telephones, cable television systems, even railroads and canals, all had their disorderly phase in the beginning (H. Sawhney, 2003). While these were sometimes sources of incompatibility and duplication, they were also sources of competition, experimentation, and innovation (e.g., for the case of electrification, see T. P. Hughes, 1993) . We should not expect (or want) wireless Internet to be different.

In 2002, an hour and a half of driving in Manhattan with an antenna revealed 448 distinct Wi-Fi networks (Dragorn, 2002). In Alessandro Ovi’s beautiful phrase, these are “water lilies,” little ovals of connectivity that are not centrally deployed, that sometimes overlap a little, whose stems lead to the Internet—usually through a broadband connection (quoted in Negroponte, 2002, p. 1). There are different ideas about who should pay for these lilies and how they should work. Companies that tried to build one proprietary monolithic wireless system like this across the US are now bankrupt (S. M. Cherry, 2002). Other lilies are provided by corporate carriers like Verizon,3 while still others are a soup of organizational hybrids and experiments like Île Sans Fil and the Austin Wireless City Project.4 To governments, this apparently chaotic mixture has seemed too new and too unstable to justify joining in (F. Bar and H. Galperin, 2004). But the messiness of these organically developing, overlapping lilies is not a mistake; it is a triumph. The ideal role for local governments and communities is what it has often been in the early stages of new infrastructure development. It is to serve the forgotten and the dispossessed, to experiment and pioneer systems that meet overlooked local needs, to partner with enthusiasts in ways that push the technology forward, to apply pressure to legacy carriers by investing in alternative networks, and to foster competition by insisting on widespread service, reasonable rates, compatibility, and interconnection on reasonable terms.



Created by hdihuyen
Last modified August 31, 2006 07:15 PM

Sign up for CPSR announcements emails


International Chapters -

> Canada
> Japan
> Peru
> Spain

USA Chapters -

> Chicago, IL
> Pittsburgh, PA
> San Francisco Bay Area
> Seattle, WA
Why did you join CPSR?

To support campaigns that raise awareness of technological uses and abuses that have significant societal effects.