Trump infrastructure plan promises brighter future for rural broadband
- President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited infrastructure plan on Monday. Of the $200 billion in requested federal funding, $50 billion would go to a rural infrastructure program, which would improve broadband internet offerings in rural communities, among other projects.
- "It’s been very unfair what’s happened with broadband in terms of the Midwest and rural areas," Trump said to a slew of state governors and local officials when discussing his infrastructure proposal. "[Now] it’s going to be taken care of. We’re spending a great deal of money on that. It’s only fair. They want it. They know how to use it, they want it, and we’re going to get it."
- The majority of the $50 billion in funding would be block-granted to states, which the Trump administration said would give "states the flexibility to prioritize their communities’ needs." The rest would be distributed through rural performance grants.
The overarching desire to improve broadband internet in rural communities appears bipartisan, albeit with varying opinions on how to achieve it and a lack of specifics in Monday's infrastructure plan. At a press conference on Feb. 8 held by several Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-NJ, called for an investment of between $40 and $50 billion in broadband. He added that more than 10 million people in urban areas and 23 million in rural parts lack access to broadband, creating divides in society.
"I think that high-speed broadband connectivity is an essential part of life and so important to Americans if they’re looking to better themselves with a job or with education or wherever it happens to be," Pallone, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at the press conference. "We know we have this rural to urban divide, we know there are many people in urban areas, many people in rural areas who are not connected."
In addition to his infrastructure plan, Trump requested $50 billion in his fiscal 2019 budget proposal — also released Monday — to fund rural infrastructure, which includes improving broadband internet. The budget blueprint, likely only an aspiration in an election year, notes the "significant need for investment in rural infrastructure," but looks to free up money from elsewhere in the federal budget to pay for infrastructure improvements. It also puts the onus on states and localities to kick in money to pay for projects, and rural communities may not be able to stump up the money to make up any funding shortfalls.
There are already several schemes afoot in Congress to improve rural broadband, meaning there is a desire to move the ball forward even as Trump rolled out his infrastructure proposal. The spending plan that passed Congress last week included $20 billion for infrastructure investment, including in rural broadband, while the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing in late January on 25 bills that look to improve broadband infrastructure nationwide.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission finalized the bidding process for its rural broadband auction, which allows service providers to bid to expand broadband infrastructure. At all levels of government there is a desire to improve rural broadband, it will just be a case of finding the money and the political will to make it happen.