extraordinary U.S. rural telephone development

Early in the twentieth century, telephone prevalence in some rural U.S. states far exceeded that in major cities around the world.  For example, Nebraska in 1914 averaged only 15 persons per mile of road.  More than 99% of its roads were dirt (unsurfaced) roads.  Yet across the rural, agricultural state of Nebraska in 1912 were 16.6 telephones per 100 persons.  Major cities such as Berlin, Budapest, Leipzig, London, Moscow, Munich, Paris, and Tokyo had less than half as many telephones per 100 persons (for most major cities, much less than half as many) as did the whole state of Nebraska.[*]

There is no whisky in this town
There is no bar to sit us down
Where is the telephone?
Is there no telephone?
Oh Sir, God damn it:
Let’s go to Benares
Where the bars are plenty
Let’s go to Benares!
Jenny, let us go.

[Benares Song, from Bertolt Brechts Hauspostille (1927), incorporated into The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (premiered at Leipzig, 1930)]

Small, locally organized telephone companies brought telephone service extraordinarily rapidly to rural America.  Possibilities for decentralized development of communications infrastructure should be taken seriously.  However, having many small communications infrastructure providers does not mean that government policy becomes unnecessary and irrelevant.  To the contrary, having many small communications infrastructure providers makes communications policy dynamics even more important.

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Data: U.S. telephones and teledensity by state, 1907 and 1912, as well as road mileage by state, 1914 (Excel version); world telephone statistics, 1893 to 1914 (Excel version).


[*]  About 1914, teledensity (telephones per 100 persons) in urban areas was higher than in rural areas in most countries.  U.S. rural teledensity, however, was higher than urban teledensities in all countries but Sweden.  Nebraska was a rural U.S. state with relatively high teledensity.  Its teledensity in 1907 was actually higher than teledensity in central New York City (Manhattan and the Bronx) in 1905.

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