Award Winning Blog

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Prospects for Widespread Access to Electric Vehicle Charging Stations: Insights From Telecommunications Technology Diffusion

            An energy reporter, for a major daily business publication, contacted me to understand how electric vehicle charging stations might become more readily available, particularly in rural locales. She wondered whether the fast take up of new telecommunications technologies, such as cellphones, cable television, and broadband, might offer insights on what works to jump start market penetration.

             Bear with me as this apparently geeky subject offers insights on when electric vehicles might reach critical mass, in time to achieve a significant reduction in greenhouse gasses.

             The reporter intrigued me with a curious question whether the fast proliferation of gas stations might provide a model for similar geographical market penetration by electric vehicle charging stations.  My small collection of vintage gas station published road maps confirms she may be onto something.           


             This late 1950s map of Iowa identifies locations where motorists can fill up with Skelly gasoline:

             Marketing 101 suggests that a companies can bolster brand loyalty by offering a product far and wide.  The map identified locations where motorists could find a Skelly station on the recently constructed Interstate 80.

             Access to EV charging follows a similar chicken/egg challenge: car buyers will become more inclined to buy an EV if they have confidence that access to charging stations will not create FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

             Several parallels in telecom provide insights on what business models work. 

 Cellular Radio

             Some of you might remember the bad old days when a lack of vigilance when “roaming” might result in a hefty and unexpected charge.  Before nationwide roaming, with “anytime, anywhere minutes,” the U.S. had many standalone, “independent” operators, primarily serving ex urban and rural locations.  These carriers made a killing by providing access to their networks by motorists speeding along a major Interstate highway.  Few noticed the icon on their handsets (or bag phones) showing that a call was being handled by another carrier.

             The major operators, such as Bell Atlantic, Pacific Telesis, Bell South, and Southwestern Bell eventually executed roaming agreements with the small, independent operators, thereby reducing or eliminating “non-network” roaming charges.  The end to unexpected, extortionate roaming charges helped expand subscribership and the eventual mergers and acquisitions that now leave us with only three national carriers.

 Cable Television

             Unlike cellular radio, cable television debuted in lots of rural areas at the same time, or even before urban service.  First generation cable was labeled Community Antenna Television, typically offered by local, “Mom and Pop” television sales and service ventures.  These entrepreneurs offered cable television, primarily to stimulate interest and demand for television sets.

             CATV market penetration occurred on small, town-by-town basis without coordination, or accrual of scale economies.  Rural residence, starved for any broadcast television reception, gladly paid for access to a few broadcast channels.  Their urban counterparts had free, off-air reception options.  Only after cable operators embraced satellite technology to deliver distant signals and new cable only content did national penetration and subscribership speed up.


             High speed Internet access provides a case study in a most desirable, but costly technology largely unavailable in rural locales unless and until, private and public actors subsidize access.  This technology has high startup costs that operators must bear before the first dollar arrives.  On the other hand, adding an additional subscriber typically has much lower, so-called incremental costs, especially for high density locales.

             A private venture might vertically integrate into the electric charging market to remove FUD, generate brand loyalty, and stimulate vehicles sales.  It might also install facilities using proprietary standards resulting in incompatibility with EVs manufactured by competitors. 

             A government agency might want to stimulate demand, but typically the legislature must enact laws creating tax incentives and financial subsidies.  Unless and until incentives are anticipated and/or funded a “Digital Divide” has resulted.  The Covid-19 pandemic underscores the consequences when broadband access is unavailable or deemed too costly.

             For broadband and EV charging, state and federal governments may have to create generous financial incentives to achieve anything close to ubiquitous access.  Early adopters might not need as much external funding, because they can anticipate market opportunities, such as when a national hotel chain prioritizes the installation of charging stations.

             In any event, the past technology adoption models may offer insights on this new challenge.