If you live in the country, there’s a good chance you don’t have broadband-speed internet.
Only one in ten Americans lack access to a connection that meets the government’s new standard for the designation, but more than two thirds of them live in rural areas. In those regions, nearly 40 percent of people can’t get broadband.
Experts worry this digital divide is slowing small-town economic development at a time when farm and factory jobs are vanishing and young people and retailers are fleeing for cities.
Donald Trump, who capitalized on this despair in his run for the White House, finally offered a concrete answer to this problem, however vague, in an Iowa speech this week.
The president said he plans to propose an expansion of broadband access to remote areas as part of an ambitious infrastructure bill.
“I will be including a provision in our infrastructure proposal — $1 trillion proposal, you’ll be seeing it very shortly — to promote and foster, enhance broadband access for rural America,” he said. “We will rebuild rural America.”
Trump said limited broadband is keeping farmers from using the latest agricultural technology, like big data tools that track crop growth and soil conditions or online livestock auctions.
“We must ensure that [agriculture] students have the broadband internet access they need in order to succeed and thrive in this very new and very changed economy, and world,” he told the crowd at Kirkwood Community College, a school that specializes in farm tech. “Farming is very beautiful to me — I’m not a farmer but I’d be happy to be one.”
The White House didn’t offer any details as to how such an expansion might be implemented or how much of a budget he’d allot it.
Nevertheless, the support was no doubt welcome news to farm lobbies and capitol hill lawmakers who’ve urged the president to fit the issue into his plan to rebuild the country’s roads and bridges.
“Rural broadband, we need that quite honestly more than we need roads and bridges in many of the counties I represent,” Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican, said in a House committee hearing last month.
So why hasn’t anything been done to meet this demand? Laying the fiber optic cables needed for broadband connections can cost up to $30,000 per mile. That investment simply isn’t economical for telecom and cable companies in sparsely populated areas with few potential customers to justify the spending.
That means people in there are often stuck with copper lines that are too weak for high-speed data. Many of these consumers are stranded in the dial-up age, while others rely on spotty satellite or cell service.
The federal government has historically helped fill utility gaps like these through subsidies and other incentives for the private sector, public works, or a combination of both.
The playbook’s no different in this case. The Federal Communications Commission and other agencies have dolled out tens of billions in subsidies to providers for more than two decades.
Yet the divide persists for a variety of reasons. Some of these programs have been mismanaged, in other instances, providers don’t live up to promised connection speeds or the government later raises the broadband threshold, and sometimes, markets are so unattractive that private companies even turn down government funds to avoid them.
Wrapping an expansion drive in a big-money infrastructure plan could be a rare opportunity fort the government power past such piecemeal efforts. And it’s one of the few Trump policies that appeals to both sides of the aisle.
Disagreements abound, however, on the best way to approach expansion and the respective roles of public and private entities.
In the case that Trump does follow through with the plan, Congress will need to carefully craft an intricate system of policy mechanisms in cooperation with state and local governments. It won’t be easy, but the prospect could certainly be promising.
‘Removing stop signs and traffic lights’
Trump’s FCC chair Ajit Pai has already said he wants to make broadband access a top priority, despite having voted against various items that would have furthered this agenda as a commissioner.
“One of the most significant things that I’ve seen during my time here is that there is a digital divide in this country—between those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not,” Pajit told FCC staff on his first day.
Pajit has been pushing a plan for months that mostly amounts to removing rules around how broadband infrastructure is installed. He claims regulations are discouraging telecoms from investing in rural areas.
The FCC passed a notice in April that aims to let businesses bypass local and state construction laws such as permit requirements for attaching fiber cables to utility poles and eliminate caps on how much providers can charge consumers.
Several consumer advocacy groups oppose this approach and argue that it won’t expand broadband coverage and could even diminish service.
Public Knowledge, a public interest group focused on digital competition, said in an FCC filing that Pajit’s proposal will “abandon critical consumer protections, threaten the stability and reliability of the nation’s communications networks, and railroad state and local governments, all for the apparent convenience of incumbent telecommunications providers.”
Megan Clyburn, the sole Democrat left on the commission, voted for the item despite some apparent reservations.
“On the road from legacy to modern services, this item seeks comment on removing stop signs and traffic lights along the way,” she said in a statement on the vote. “I only hope, that we do not crash and burn.”
That deregulation proposal, along with a scheme of tax credits, loosened restrictions on bonds and other incentives, have since morphed into a bill introduced in the senate last month with bipartisan sponsorship.
Two other bills aimed at creating a more consistent and comprehensive replacement for the government’s outdated broadband coverage maps are making their way through the house and senate respectively with similar cross-party support.
The Democrats also unveiled their own long-shot $1-trillion infrastructure bill in the week after Trump’s inauguration that sets aside $20 billion for broadband installments.
Despite Pajit’s full-throated support for broadband expansion, he’s also given plenty of indication that he’s not committed to the ideal of equal internet access in the same way most progressive consumer advocates would like.
Geography of access is only the first hurdle in bridging the digital divide. Affordability of access is a perhaps even greater challenge, especially because steep barriers of entry and esoteric policies have created exploitative monopolies and duopolies in many regions.
Pajit’s FCC hasn’t shown much interest in resolving that issue. In a reversal of his predecessor’s policy in February, Pai blocked nine companies from offering discounted service to low-income areas through the agency’s Lifeline program, which was originally created to subsidize phone service in 1985. The next month, he delegated oversight of the program to state governments in a move that opponents say could hand more power to telecoms and cable companies to kill competition.
Pajit argues that the landmark regulatory framework his predecessor entrenched to protect net neutrality — the notion that providers should treat all internet traffic as equal — has curbed new investments in low-income and rural areas by restraining potential profits. Net neutrality proponents say there’s limited data to back up this claim — a favorite talking point of cable and telecom lobbyists — and peeling back the rules will ultimately hurt consumers.
In any case, Pajit’s actions have suggested a clear priority of business interests over those of consumers characteristic of the Trump administration. If that’s any indication of how Trump plans to approach the problem in his infrastructure bill, it’s likely to be a bumpy road.