reader comments 77
President Trump’s new 10-year plan for “rebuilding infrastructure in America” doesn’t contain any funding specifically earmarked for improving Internet access. Instead, the plan sets aside a pool of funding for numerous types of infrastructure projects, and broadband is one of the eligible categories.
The plan’s $50 billion Rural Infrastructure Program lists broadband as one of five broad categories of eligible projects. Here’s the full list:
- Transportation: roads, bridges, public transit, rail, airports, and maritime and inland waterway ports.
- Broadband (and other high-speed data and communication conduits).
- Water and Waste: drinking water, wastewater, storm water, land revitalization, and Brownfields.
- Power and Electric: governmental generation, transmission, and distribution facilities.
- Water Resources: flood risk management, water supply, and waterways.
Eighty percent of the program’s $50 billion would be “provided to the governor of each state.” Governors would take the lead in deciding how the money would be spent in their states. The other 20 percent would pay for grants that could be used for any of the above project categories.
Separately, broadband would be eligible for funding from a proposed $20 billion Transformative Projects Program, along with transportation, clean water, drinking water, energy, and commercial space.
Trump’s plan would also add rural broadband facilities to the list of eligible categories for Private Activity Bonds, which allow private projects to “benefit from the lower financing costs of tax-exempt municipal bonds.” The plan would also let carriers install small cells and Wi-Fi attachments without going through the same environmental and historical preservation reviews required for large towers.
Democratic lawmakers have been lobbying for $40 billion in dedicated broadband funding. That amount would raise broadband availability from 86 percent to 98 percent of the country, according to a Federal Communications Commission report released during the Obama administration.
Democrats critical of funding plan
Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers previously argued that putting broadband in a list of eligible projects isn’t enough and that there should be funding dedicated to improving broadband availability. Democrats were scathing in their reviews of Trump’s plan yesterday.
“With a comparatively paltry investment from the federal government over ten years—less than one-tenth of 1 percent of GDP—and no dedicated funding for rural broadband, the Administration’s plan falls far short in resources, leaving many communities behind,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said.
“This glaring omission is a betrayal of the rural voters that supported [Trump] in his election, and a missed opportunity to close the digital divide that separates rural and urban America,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said. “A robust rural broadband network is essential to attract businesses, provide access to health care through telemedicine, help farmers become more efficient, and close the homework gap that hamstrings rural students.”
Welch is co-chair of the House Rural Broadband Caucus, which includes three Democrats and three Republicans. Last month, all six of those lawmakers urged Trump to “include funding specifically for rural broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas.”
Republican leadership in Congress has seemed reluctant to propose dedicated broadband funding, though. Last month, we contacted the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to ask if a Republican proposal would include specific funding for broadband.
A committee spokesperson did not provide us with a direct answer and said the committee’s Republican leadership was waiting to see what Trump would propose. “We intend to work with our Democratic colleagues on these bipartisan issues, and look forward to reviewing the [Trump] administration’s infrastructure proposal once it is announced,” the spokesperson told Ars.
Democrats’ $40 billion plan to cover 98 percent of US
Democrats had previously proposed a $40 billion broadband investment to ensure broadband coverage for 98 percent of the country.
“Congressional Republicans have not reached out to work with us on broadband infrastructure so far, which doesn’t make a lot of sense since Democrats are the only ones proposing actual funding to improve and expand broadband access,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) told Ars in a statement last month.
Pallone represents Democrats as the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Forty billion dollars “is the funding necessary to ensure that nearly every American has broadband access,” Pallone also told Ars. “The Republican proposals are far less ambitious and do not actually solve any of our country’s most pressing broadband infrastructure problems.”
Still, some Republicans want to add dedicated broadband funding to the infrastructure plan when it goes through Congress. Senate Broadband Caucus co-Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) “argues that governors would be more inclined to use cash for roads and bridges than broadband if infrastructure modes are lumped into one rural fund,” according to Politico.
The $40 billion figure proposed by Democrats came from a FCC paper titled, “improving the Nation’s Digital Infrastructure.”
As of December 2015, 14 percent of 160 million US residential and small- and medium-sized business locations lack access to fiber or cable service with speeds of at least 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up, the FCC paper said. It would cost $40 billion to cover 12 percent with fiber in order to bring total coverage up to 98 percent, it says. Getting fiber broadband to that final 2 percent, in sparsely populated areas, would require an additional $40 billion, the paper said.
“Unlike the last 2 percent, moreover, we do not expect these first 12 percent of locations will require material ongoing support once the network has been built, as subscriber revenues should be sufficient to pay for ongoing network costs,” the paper said.
FCC chair praises Trump plan
The FCC paper was issued in the final days of then-Chairman Tom Wheeler’s term. The FCC rescinded the paper and all of its findings without explanation shortly after Trump appointed Republican Ajit Pai to be the new chair.
Yesterday, Pai praised Trump’s infrastructure plan. Pai’s statement discussed improving wireless via 5G technology but did not mention expansion of fiber or cable.
“Too often, regulatory barriers make it harder and more expensive to build out broadband than it needs to be—to the detriment of American consumers,” Pai said. “That’s why this plan is a welcome and strong call to action. I stand ready to work with the Administration and Congress to turn this plan into a reality as we continue to bridge the digital divide and extend 5G digital opportunity to all Americans.”
You can also check out our other coverage on what the Trump budget means for science research and energy.