Congress pushes broadband access ahead of Trump infrastructure proposal
Congress is making a push to get rural internet access projects funded through President Trump’s promised $1.7 trillion infrastructure plan.
Lawmakers representing rural areas have argued that many of their constituents are losing out on economic and educational resources due to a lack of broadband access. And as the president teases an infrastructure plan, members are stepping up their calls for increased funding.
This week, leaders of the bipartisan House Rural Broadband Caucus raised their concerns about the possibility that the plan might not include any funding for rural internet connectivity.
“Rural communities must have adequate broadband infrastructure to attract and retain businesses and human resources, close the homework gap for students and teachers, open innovative and convenient pathways to telemedicine for seniors and providers, and help farmers increase efficiencies in their barns and on their land,” the House members wrote in a letter.
The increasing importance of internet access has turned it into an infrastructure issue that many see as just as vital as roads and bridges.
In a 2016 progress report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated that 34 million people in the U.S., including 23 million rural Americans, still lack access to broadband internet, which the agency defines as having download speeds of 25 megabits per second.
Trump has voiced support for addressing the issue in his infrastructure package. He said he will discuss the $1.7 trillion plan in his State of the Union speech next week, and it could be released as early as this month.
But details are still light. A leaked draft outline of the infrastructure plan showed that broadband access projects were included as part of the 25 percent of dollars set aside for rural infrastructure spending.
Lawmakers are still looking for assurances that internet access will receive direct funding from the White House plan.
Earlier this month, the bipartisan Senate Broadband Caucus, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), called on the president to set aside deployment funds.
“Our rural communities have connectivity needs that are not being met, limiting economic opportunity and growth,” the letter reads. “Prioritizing direct funding support for broadband deployment in an infrastructure package will help close the digital divide and ensure our country maintains its global competitiveness.”
It would cost $40 billion to expand internet access to cover 98 percent of Americans, a separate FCC report estimated last year. To deliver broadband to 100 percent of the U.S. population could cost another $40 billion on top of that, according to the report.
Democrats have already seized on that first $40 billion as a benchmark.
They argue that the problem can only be tackled with a large appropriation. Last year, House Democrats floated an infrastructure proposal that would have delivered $40 billion for broadband deployment.
While Republicans seem to agree on the need to expand access, the GOP has not yet revealed a sum they’re willing to shell out for network expansion projects, and it’s unclear whether the two sides will be able to agree on a figure.
Some Republicans believe the FCC’s deregulatory spree over the past year combined with tax incentives will free up broadband companies to invest more in expanding their networks.
“The real difference in philosophy appears to be that Republicans have a vision of encouraging a private company to do this through deregulation and tax breaks,” Harold Feld, senior vice president of the group Public Knowledge, said in an interview. “Democrats are saying, ‘We’ve got to build something and we’ve got to spend money to do it.'”
The differences have spilled over to the FCC, the regulatory agency that oversees network expansion efforts.
On Thursday, Sam Liccardo, the Democratic mayor of San Jose, Calif., announced his resignation from an FCC advisory board dedicated to broadband deployment, arguing that the Republican-led agency had packed the panel with industry representatives hoping to help companies cash in on infrastructure projects.
“When I joined this committee, I hoped that I could contribute to developing balanced, common-sense recommendations that will advance our goal of expanding broadband access for all Americans, which FCC Chairman Ajit Pai identified as his ‘top priority’ at yesterday’s meeting,” Liccardo said in a statement. “It has become abundantly clear, however, that Chairman Pai and the FCC merely pay lip service to the goal of digital equity, and this body will simply serve to further the interests of the telecommunications industry over the public interest.”
In the House, both parties have unleashed a flurry of bills aimed at promoting network expansion and documenting the current state of internet access in the U.S.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s technology subcommittee, announced this week that the panel would hold a hearing on 20 internet expansion bills on Tuesday, just hours before Trump delivers his State of the Union address.
“Expanding broadband infrastructure to the approximately 23 million Americans who lack sufficient access is a top priority of this subcommittee,” Blackburn said in a statement. “I look forward to a bipartisan conversation on removing the barriers to buildout, supporting innovation, and strengthening the public safety benefits that come with broadband.”