Trump outsources rural economic development to wireless broadband companies

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

U.S. president Donald Trump put privately funded wireless broadband at the top of his rural economic development agenda yesterday. In a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation, Trump embraced recommendations made by a government task force he created to define rural economic development policy. The task force report labeled rural connectivity “essential” and “fundamental for economic development”, and leaned heavily on wireless solutions.

“The task force heard from farmers that broadband internet access is an issue of vital concern to their communities and businesses“, Trump said. “That is why today, in a few moments, I will take the first step to expand access to broadband Internet in rural America. I will sign two presidential orders to provide broader, faster—and better—internet coverage”.

Those orders direct the interior department to make some of its assets, presumably towers and wireless sites, available for broadband development purposes and generally tell federal agencies to speed up antenna installations on federal buildings.

The task force did not call for increased federal spending on broadband infrastructure. Instead, it recommended trimming back regulations, favoring wireless facilities over wireline construction, and trusting broadband service providers to get the job done…

Past efforts to connect rural America have resulted in the allocation of substantial amounts of federal funds for broadband deployment and, while such investments made important contributions, our country has not fully achieved the connectivity needed for success in the economy of today and tomorrow. Although capital investment is one aspect of bridging the divide, far too many government policies stifle network buildout. By streamlining the deployment process, allowing access to existing infrastructure, and reducing barriers to buildout, risk can be reduced and providers can be encouraged to expand networks throughout rural America.

As we modernize and reduce regulations, we should also consider the full range of means to connect rural communities, including satellite, fixed wireless, and cellular networks. These technologies can be less expensive to deploy than traditional wired networks and are rapidly improving in quality.

The focus on building wireless infrastructure with private capital –supplemented by existing federal subsidy programs, particularly the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF) – is consistent with past Trump administration positions. Its national security policy paper, released last month, similarly called out 5G infrastructure. Republicans at the FCC and in congress favor using the CAF model as a low cost, incumbent-centric method of upgrading rural broadband. And of course, FCC chair Ajit Pai generally wants to take a weed whacker to telecoms regulations.

CAF-subsidised wireless service, as deployed by AT&T and planned by Frontier Communications, will freeze rural broadband speeds at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload for a generation or more. That service level is far below the 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard adopted by the U.S. agriculture department, and it’s nowhere near enough to deliver, as yesterday’s report calls for, "reliable and affordable high-speed internet connectivity [that] will transform rural America as a key catalyst for prosperity.

But Trump says it’s enough.

Report to the president of the United States from the task force on agriculture and rural prosperity, released 8 January 2018