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The Invisible Heroes

How are you reading this right now? 


Sure, you may be on your phone, a tablet, a laptop, or a PC. But how are these words showing up on your screen? 


I’m pretty new to the Katapult team, and I’ve been trying to figure this out myself. Here’s what I know: 


It all comes down to telecommunications. 


All the information we could ever want or need, more than ever before, is at our fingertips. Anywhere, anytime, instantly—because of telecommunications. 


Telecom is a manner of communicating over distances. It’s a modern answer to an age-old question: how can I, in this place where I am, communicate with you in the place where you are? 


Technically, this whole thing started with smoke signals, flag waving, and lit beacons— ancient communication methods over great distances. Fast forward to the mid-1800s, when modern telecommunications was born with the invention of the telegraph. 


For the first time, people began communicating using tiny electric signals through Morse code to get complex messages across long distances. This is all happening at the same time as the Pony Express, which was the fastest means of sending and receiving information at the time. Think of it—news of Abraham Lincoln’s election to President traveled from the east coast to the west in only eight short days! 


But the Pony Express wasn’t faster than the telegraph. Poles quickly took over the country, making cross-country communication possible in seconds. (When Abe was assassinated, news reached California instantly.) 


From the telegraph, we rapidly moved to the telephone. Poles carried telegraph, telephone, and electric lines, creating monstrosities like this early 1900s pole. 


Monster telephone poles with dozens of attachments, from the early 1900s


From telegraphs to telephones, television, and computers, we finally got to the internet. From there, things really sped up. I mean, connection was everywhere—homes, offices, cars, and even your pocket! 


As devices became more prevalent, we learned to make them smarter and faster. You could talk, text, share, email, tweet, repost, play, stream.

 

You could get an education, learn a language, go to work, and see your doctor—all over a screen. And it kept getting faster and faster, more and more advanced, with unheard-of download and upload speeds.


Cell phones had access to 3G cellular, then LTE, and now 5G ultra-wideband and were nearly as versatile as computers and laptops. And then? 


A global pandemic. 


Thankfully, we could still attend class (in the shower), Zoom into meetings (from our beds), and make calls (with no pants on). 


But not everyone had those options. 


Covid-19 demonstrated our deep dependency on reliable, high-speed internet. It also highlighted the communities that desperately lacked it. Even now, years later, we rely on ubiquitous internet access to go about our daily lives. Everything from cooking dinner to navigating new cities to catching up on sports requires dependable internet service.


Yet across the country, underserved communities still struggle to keep up with a world that sees online education, telehealth, cloud backups, streaming services, and video calls as a given. 


Before we write those folks off as the few (or as stubborn luddites) in Alaska or Wyoming, remember that 1 in 10 households have speeds less than 25Mbps and 1 in 3 internet customers have speeds less than 100Mbps.


The US government is working hard to provide public funding to incentivize providers to build networks in rural areas. RDOF, BEAD, and Internet for All are efforts to provide high-speed internet to the areas most in need. Providers are leveraging public and private capital to chip away at the number of underserved communities while also hitting ROI goals. 


Their best option for broadband deployment? 


You guessed it— the humble utility pole. 


Maybe not the same as those death traps of the 1900s, nor the ones carrying news of Lincoln’s assassination. But the poles you pass every day, stretching from cell towers and standing tall over suburban neighborhoods (where everything goes underground). The poles that carry internet to the most rural areas and beyond. 


So, how are you reading this? How can you check your email, call your mom, like a post, or stream TV? 


All thanks to the utility pole.


And the invisible heroes who keep the lights on. 


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