Trump's broadband policy has direction, but no destination

29 January 2017 by Steve Blum
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The few clues about broadband policy to surface during the Trump administration’s first, tumultuous week can be summed up in two words: hands off. Every time a choice was made that touched on broadband, the administration opted for less federal involvement, rather than more.

The white house made one big appointment and offered two hints about where broadband policy is going. President Trump picked Ajit Pai to be the next chairman of the FCC. As a member of the republican minority for the past few years, Pai opposed moves towards a more active broadband industry role for the FCC.

The first significant decision of his chairmanship gave control of federal broadband subsidy money to the State of New York – more about that tomorrow – and even as he put closing the digital divide at the top of his priority list, Pai framed it as doing “what’s necessary to help the private sector build networks, send signals, and distribute information”.

The two hints came in two flavors: what Trump said and what he didn’t say. The executive order he signed that creates a regulatory fast track for “infrastructure projects…that are a high priority for the nation” specifically calls out broadband infrastructure, including it along with bridges, highways and other construction work. Trump clearly considers telecommunications to be a full member of the critical infrastructure club.

But when it came time to talk about federal spending, broadband was conspicuously absent. In his inaugural speech, Trump reprised his campaign promise to “build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways”, but telecommunications didn’t make the list.

Environmental reviews for broadband projects? Hands off. Federal subsidies for broadband deployment? If it must be done – and there’s reason to doubt anyone in the administration thinks it’s needful – let the states work out the details. Otherwise, it’s up to the private sector to close gaps and the federal government’s job to get out of the way.

Less red tape and more discretion for state governments will lead to broadband infrastructure and service upgrades, if the underlying policy encourages genuine competition and refuses to genuflect to traditional monopoly privileges. That question is still to be answered.