Federal broadband earmarks sound good, but be careful what you wish for

17 February 2018 by Steve Blum

Broadband should get specific, allocated funding in the federal infrastructure plan floated by the Trump administration earlier this week, according to congress members on both sides of the aisle. The white house wants to spend $200 billion on infrastructure, conditioned on leveraging it up to $1.5 trillion with state, local and private money. Aside from an undefined amount for the Rural Utilities Services (RUS), there’s nothing set aside specifically for broadband, although it’s eligible to compete with other types of infrastructure projects for a slice of the whole ham.

According to a couple of articles in Politico, some rural republicans want broadband called out

[U.S. senate] Broadband Caucus co-chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito [R – West Virginia] told [Politico] last month that if the White House doesn’t include an internet set-aside, Congress should “reshape” the proposal. She argues that governors would be more inclined to use cash for roads and bridges than broadband if infrastructure modes are lumped into one rural fund.

As do some democrats, albeit not as politely…

[Representatives] Peter Welch [D – Vermont] and Mark Pocan [D – Wisconsin] slammed the lack of dedicated broadband funding in the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan . “This glaring omission is a betrayal of the rural voters that supported him in his election, and a missed opportunity to close the digital divide that separates rural and urban America,” Welch said.

On the face of it, everyone agrees that federal money should be spent on upgrading broadband in rural communities. But if – against plenty of evidence to the contrary – the federal congress is capable of reaching a bipartisan consensus on infrastructure spending, the question becomes: will states or congress choose which kinds of projects to fund?

If the answer is congress, do not expect anything new. The two primary federal broadband subsidy programs – the agriculture department’s RUS and the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund – are designed to support incumbents. RUS supports small, existing rural providers, the FCC favors big telcos with a national footprint. Neither program is designed to be disruptive or innovative.

There’s no guarantee states will do any better – California’s lawmakers defer to big incumbents on a bipartisan basis as well – but it’s a battleground where individuals can make a difference.