Trump’s infrastructure plan offers something for broadband, but little hope for California

by Steve Blum • ,

There are three good reasons not to like yesterday’s announcement of, as president Donald Trump put it, “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history”:

  1. It’s not so big and bold. Trump proposes to spend $200 billion, not $1.5 trillion. The balance will be, as businessmen say, other people’s money.
  2. Very little of the $200 million is aimed at broadband.
  3. Donald Trump likes it.

On the other hand, I can think of three good reasons to be happy about it:

  1. $200 billion isn’t chump change. The actual spend on genuine capital infrastructure projects could end up being greater than what came out of the Obama administration’s $900+ billion stimulus program.
  2. Broadband projects are specifically eligible to compete for $90 billion, and arguably eligible for – or at least not specifically excluded from – much of the rest.
  3. I don’t give a rat’s ass what Donald Trump likes or doesn’t like. Project choices would be made at the state and local level, which I do care about, even if I’m not pleased with the result.

The plan has a couple of call outs for telecoms infrastructure. It would scale back, if not eliminate altogether, environmental and historical reviews when wireless equipment is attached to existing structures. The plan also specifically identifies the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service as a recipient of an undetermined amount of money from a $14 billion allocation for federal infrastructure loan programs. RUS makes loans for rural broadband projects – mostly to cooperatives and hardly ever in California, but that’s a problem that predates the Trump administration by decades.

That said, there’s little chance that much, if anything, will go toward significant broadband upgrades in California. State and local governments, and private sector partners will have to come up with $1.3 trillion in matching funds. To egregiously assume that California gets 10% of the money, our tab will be something like $130 billion, plus or minus a few billion.

That’s not so daunting if we’re talking about big ticket water and transportation projects, like the Delta water tunnels and the high speed rail system pushed by governor Jerry Brown, or course-of-business infrastructure spending like highways and aquaducts. But California doesn’t spend much on broadband infrastructure, outside of the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), which was turned into an incumbent piggy back by telco and cable lobbyists last year. We’re not going to see transformative middle mile projects like Digital 395 , which was largely funded by the Obama stimulus program, with help from CASF.

It’s not a problem to pin on Trump. We did it to ourselves.

Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America, 12 February 2018.