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Friday, November 21, 2014

Rural electric co-op history provides lesson on net neutrality

MAP: 1555 NW Monroe Street Corvallis Oregon (Google Maps) across the street from the Oregon State University campus in 1948 was the headquarters of Consumers Power Inc. (CPI is a rural electric power utility and Pioneer phone company headquartered in Philomath, Oregon, which is also the ISP run by PEAK Internet Services that was spun off from OSU where it was started as a "Public Education And Access to Knowledge" (PEAK) service to the university in the early days of the internet). In the small world department, CPI's headquarters were bought in 1948 by the local daily Gazette-Times newspaper and today is now the office of a professional engineer, who works on OSU projects, Sam Graves, P.E. 1555 NW Monroe St. a Glumac Associate Principal and a Senior Mechanical Engineer with 27 years of hands-on industry experience. Another former address of the G-T newspaper was later occupied by the restaurant Headline Cafe 300 SW Jefferson Ave, Near SW 3rd Str. Corvallis, which closed several years ago.

My local co-op electric power provider Consumers Power Incorporated, commonly known as CPI, which was created by a 1930's President's Executive Order, recently printed a limited number of copies of a book on their history by Pat Swinger, "Shedding Light on the Willamette Valley: The History of Consumers Power Inc.," published 2014 by Consumers Power Inc. (PDF) 75 pages.

I first noticed a mention of this history in my local electric power co-op provider's monthly magazine on the back cover piece by Roman Gillen, President and CEO of Consumers Power Incorporated Inc., "President's Report," Ruralite, Oct. 2014, p. 32. He mentioned they had printed a limited number of copies of a book they produced on CPI history since it was founded 75 years ago. (Also see in the same issue another mention of the 75th anniversary bySusan Decker, "A mutually Beneficial Relationship," Ruralite, Oct. 2014, p. 8)

"Seventy-five years have passed since the men and women of rural Oregon began envisioning a better life for themselves and their neighbors and organized the Benton-Lincoln Electric Cooperative. In the years since, so much has changed that the current operation of Consumers Power Inc. bears little resemblance to the earliest days of the cooperative. Bucket trucks and digger trucks have made new construction much easier and safer than it was when a lineman's day often meant eight hours of climbing and working on poles. In the office, automation and computers have replaced the clunky and clumsy equipment of years past. So, too, have the members' lives changed since those early days.

"The backbreaking and often dangerous labor of everyday life in rural America has been exchanged, in large part, for a life of greater ease, albeit one of much greater complexity. And while the service Consumers Power Inc. supplies has become almost as necessary to our existence as the air we breathe, the irony is that we too often take it for granted. The truth is the people of Consumers Power Inc. work with the same dedication as did the people who organized and worked the cooperative in its earliest days. They are committed, now as much as ever, to serving their communities . . . their friends, their families, their neighbors, and this is their story." (Quoted from "75 Years of Cooperative History," accessed Nov. 11, 2014)

When I first arrived at Oregon State University over 40 years ago, one of the first lectures I attended on electric power engineering was by an OSU professor who had helped design and engineer long-distance electrical power distribution networks used by CPI. At the time, I did not fully understand the significance of his contribution, nor the politics surrounding it.

The history of CPI is interesting to read because it reflects the political shifts in America between conservative country voters and liberal city dwellers. Here is letter to the editor I wrote that occurred to me after reading the CPI history book:

The current political debate over President Obama's net neutrality proposal has many parallels to the history of a Depression-era Executive Order signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on May 11, 1935 to establish the Rural Electrification Administration.

Republicans criticized Roosevelt's REA as being socialism and attempted to undermine it late as President Nixon's administration, but were overruled by rural constituents who had been denied good service by commercial utility companies.

Similar political disagreement exists today between Democrats who want to defend the common good via net neutrality utility regulations, versus Republicans who want to defend capitalism by letting the marketplace decide how Americans are connected to the world's internet information superhighway, even if many citizens are left behind.

Hopefully, America's national security will not have to be threatened by cyber-world wars before Republicans will support internet laws for the common good, similar to how the Republican President Eisenhower finally supported the Interstate Highway System under the guise of national defense.

These political parallels occurred to me while reading the local history of May Grant (1893-1969) who was elected in 1946 to the Board of Directors of the Corvallis Consumers Power rural electric co-op, which CPI posted for free online and also printed in a limited number of copies to celebrate their 75th anniversary.

(Quoted from Thomas Kraemer, "Letter: Battle over net neutrality recalls events of 1930s," Gazette-Times, Nov. 21, 2014, p. A9

Ironically, after I had submitted my letter, but before mine was published, a letter on a related topic was printed talking about "the collective good":

"In the past, eminent domain was used for real exigencies. During World War II, a segment of what is now our farm was taken by the federal government for a water treatment plant, a well and several pipelines for Camp Adair -- all needed for the collective good of the entire populace. Later, during the Eisenhower administration, eminent domain was applied for acquisition of land for the interstate highway system -- also deemed necessary for the good of the nation. . . ." (Quoted from Louise Snyder, Albany, "Letter: Development of bike path on farm land an unnecessary 'slippery slope,'" posted Nov. 20, 2014)