Science & Technology

Tech faces tough choices on rural broadband

Telecom and consumer groups are preparing to make a major push for including billions of dollars for rural broadband funding in any infrastructure deal, even as lawmakers and advocates struggle with tough questions ahead.

Democratic leaders signaled that broadband investment could be a major part of the $2 trillion infrastructure deal they are pursuing with President Trump. Industry groups quickly took notice at what could be the most significant government investment in broadband in years. 

U.S. Telecom, which represents the country’s largest internet service providers, put out a statement immediately in support of a “muscular, serious infrastructure bill that narrows the digital divide, supports broadband deployment, modernizes networks and gets all American families.”

And the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) said it is eager to promote its vision for broadband funding. 

“We’re in favor of any infrastructure package including any broadband funding,” Cinnamon Rogers, senior vice president of government affairs with TIA, told The Hill. “I would characterize TIA as ‘hopeful.’ We remain very hopeful that they can strike a deal.”

Consumer groups, which support significant rural broadband investments but often split with telecom groups over how that money should be allocated, have also started their lobbying efforts.

Phillip Berenbroick, senior policy counsel with consumer group Public Knowledge, told The Hill they reached out to lawmaker offices when they heard Pelosi and Schumer mention broadband last week.

“That perked up our ears and made us think, yes, OK, let’s get moving,” Berenbroick said. 

However, stakeholders told The Hill they’ve been burned before — the White House and Congress have circled a possible infrastructure deal for years and potential legislation has been sidelined many times. 

“Right now, it’s just talk,” Gigi Sohn, a former adviser at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Obama administration told The Hill. “When it’s actually some numbers written down on paper and a deal, then come talk to me.”

The main roadblock ahead could come from GOP lawmakers, who oppose any tax increases to fund the infrastructure package.

Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce technology subcommittee, told The Hill that he supports rural broadband funding but it’s an open question “how you’re going to pay for it.” 

“That’s really important,” Latta said. “I can’t really make a definitive answer. But for us especially in rural America, we really want to get broadband.”

Lawmakers from rural communities for years have sought funding for broadband initiatives, seeking to close the stark divide between rural and urban access to the internet. They say the lack of internet access in rural areas fuels inequality and disenfranchises those from isolated communities. 

But some of those same GOP lawmakers have been raising serious objections to Trump’s infrastructure proposal, saying they are not willing to raise taxes to pay for it. 

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a key member of the Senate Commerce Committee who has previously voiced support for rural broadband funding in an infrastructure deal, told The Hill last week that he is hesitant about any tax increases. 

“If we’re going to do infrastructure, I think we ought to pay for it,” he said. 

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, however, told The Hill that he supports an increased gas tax to fund any infrastructure projects, an idea other top GOP lawmakers have dismissed.

“It’s traditionally been the way grown-ups pay for infrastructure, particularly roads and bridges — fuel taxes,” Wicker told The Hill. 

There are also splits over a top-line number and how to allocate funds.

A previous Democratic proposal in the Senate would have earmarked $40 billion for broadband infrastructure, the amount of money the FCC in 2017 said was needed to connect 98 percent of Americans to high-speed internet. 

And the White House last year put out its own infrastructure deal proposal, which would have offered $50 billion for rural block grants, which states could have used for broadband investments.  But rural lawmakers on both sides of the aisle panned the White House proposal for failing to dedicate stand-alone funding to rural broadband. 

Trump said at the meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) last week that he “never supported” his own White House’s previous plan, sources in the room said.

There are also significant divisions over which projects the deal should prioritize and which agencies should take the lead.

Some groups are expected to call for any infrastructure money to flow through pre-existing programs at the FCC and Agriculture Department. Others, though, say it is time for different investments. 

Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly in a statement to The Hill said he strongly advises any broadband funding be allocated to the FCC’s Universal Service Fund high-cost program, which provides subsidies for expanding access to communications services in poor and rural areas.

O’Rielly said he believes it is “crucial” that any money “not be used to overbuild existing providers, particularly those funded by other federal government programs.”  

The debate over “overbuilding” is fraught, with some critics worrying that large companies will interfere in funding decisions to maintain monopolies in areas they serve.

“I think there’s going to be different kinds of lobbying,” Sohn said. “The small rural players ... maybe even local governments, will be thinking funding.”

“But then the big guys are going to be in there too but not asking for money,” Sohn said, referring to the country’s largest internet service providers. “They’re going to be seeking limitations on where this money goes. They’re not going to want it to go to any area where they serve. They’re going to only want it to go to unserved areas.” 

U.S. Telecom did not respond to The Hill’s requests for comment. 

The spokesman for ACA Connects, a group that represents cable, phone and fiber-to-the-home operators, said the group supports “government efforts to ensure universal and affordable broadband” but feels “concerned” about where the money will go.

“We are concerned that government money will end up with providers that are called ‘overbuilders’ and will be competing with incumbents,” Ted Hearn, the group’s director of communications, told The Hill. 

There are still unresolved issues about how the government determines who has access to broadband and who does not. Critics have raised significant concerns around how the agency collects data on the digital divide, claiming the FCC overestimates how many people have access to broadband.

“Broadband is the basic infrastructure of the 21st century and we know millions and millions of Americans have no access to high-speed service,” Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement to The Hill.

“It’s no wonder policymakers are exploring legislation when the FCC is dismissively suggesting the job is already done.”


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