SCHOOLED: What is Infrastructure?

In the wake of the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the term keeps expanding to describe an evolving network of systems everyone needs.

The term infrastructure usually describes a network of streets, bridges, highways, and railroads as well as systems tied to public works such as sewer and stormwater management that are largely underfoot. Human populations rely on these vast complex systems to stay physically connected to important services and each other.

But a quick scan of Merriam Webster’s three flexible definitions also reveals that the ways English speakers use the word (borrowed originally from the French in the late 1800s) continues to evolve more than a century later.

Initially, infrastructure described the foundations or substructures of a building or railroad. And architecturally speaking, especially in urban settings, it generally refers to manmade structures underground. So tunnels, pipes, ditches, and canals that make up a typical water-management system all qualify as infrastructure. In rural areas, the word also correctly describes even small-scale, individual waste-water management systems that treat and dispose of wastewater from one or a few houses and businesses that are not connected to the public network.

Because the nation’s power grid is similarly vast, electrical lines and plants that are above ground should be considered infrastructure.

Now, because of the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the term can also cover systemic access to broadband Internet.

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