State of the Union: What about rural broadband expansion?
Wednesday, January 31, 2018
For a man who enjoys putting his name on buildings, President Donald Trump spoke surprisingly little about rebuilding America's infrastructure in Tuesday night's 90-minute State of the Union address.
In fact, Trump spent slightly less than two minutes on the topic.
After correctly noting that manufacturing is making a comeback in America — employment in manufacturing has been steadily climbing since 2010 — Trump declared, "As we rebuild our industries, it is also time to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure."
"I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve," Trump said. "Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need."
That's $500 billion more than he originally proposed spending on infrastructure last year. However, Trump never did talk about his plan to bring broadband internet to the 39 percent of people in rural America who don't have it, which is supposed to be included in the infrastructure package.
The subject of rural broadband internet service is near and dear to my heart, as I live in rural northern California, right on the cusp of both internet and cell phone coverage. After experimenting with DSL and satellite, I settled on a small local internet service provider that uses existing microwave towers to transmit a broadband signal with 10 Mbps download speed 2 Mbps upload speed to the small dish on my roof.
That's the minimum speed ISPs participating in the FCC's rural connect program must provide in order to qualify for government subsidies. For contrast, if you're reading this on a cable internet connection in the city, you may be getting over 30 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up. You can feel the difference, trust me.
I live in an extremely remote area, so I'm lucky. Despite being home to Silicon Valley, 30 percent of Californians don't have access to broadband internet, and many of them live in rural areas. Like the rest of rural America, rural California hasn't exactly thrived in the wake of the Great Recession, which is one reason why the state has the highest poverty rate in the nation.
There's a general nonpartisan consensus that expanding broadband internet into rural areas will help improve the economy and quality of life in those areas by providing critical services such as telemedicine and education, creating new home-businesses and allowing agricultural producers to take advantage of the latest advances in crop optimization.
Indeed, Trump started talking up just such a plan last summer, while stumping through rural Iowa. Earlier this month, he signed two executive orders designed to promote rural broadband expansion, one that permits telecommunications companies to access radio towers on federal government land and another to reduce red-tape in the permitting process.
While some rural broadband advocates downplayed the signings, things seemed to be moving in the right direction. But just days before Trump's State of the Union address, the House Broadband Caucus, a bipartisan coalition of 71 rural representatives, wrote the president a letter expressing their concern that funding for the plan appears to have been taken out of the president's budget proposal.
"We are concerned about recent reports that your forthcoming proposal may not include investments in rural broadband connectivity," said the letter, signed by six members of the caucus. "We write today to reiterate our support for the proposal to include funding specifically for rural broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas."
"In the Information Age, the Internet offers endless possibilities," the letter continued. "Unfortunately, these possibilities are not afforded to many rural Americans. The digital divide between urban and rural America is significant and demands a focused and aggressive response."
In the administration's announcement earlier this month, it said $200 million in USDA funding had been identified so far for rural broadband expansion, but it's unclear if those are new or existing funds. It's one-tenth of the $2.5 billion provided for rural broadband expansion by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The day before the State of the Union, Bloomberg reported Democrats were skeptical of Trump's infrastructure plan, which proposes to use $200 billion in targeted federal spending to stimulate up to $1.5 trillion in total private-public investment over the next decade. They say it's not enough to do the job and are threatening to bolt negotiations.
"It's a 'nothing burger,'" Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Bloomberg. "It has to have real investment, not just a bunch of polemics and ideology pretending to be taking major steps to rebuild our infrastructure."
With all the prespeech chatter that Trump was going to strike a conciliatory tone in his first State of the Union Address, coming out strong on the infrastructure package seemed like a safe bet. And discussing the rural broadband initiative would directly benefit the rural voters who helped elect him president.
But it was not to be, at least on this night. He did get to infrastructure pretty quickly in the speech, but his heart just wasn't in it.
"Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with State and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment ― to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit," Trump read from the teleprompter. "Any bill must also streamline the permitting and approval process ― getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one.
"Together, we can reclaim our building heritage. We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands and American grit."
And that was it, the entire portion of Trump's speech devoted to the infrastructure plan he's been talking about since the day he announced he was running for president. Roughly 180 words out of a 5,000-word speech.
He didn't even say the word "internet."
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