The Trump administration would love to have rural broadband advocates make much hay (pun intended) of two executive orders signed this week. Both orders aim to to make it easier to build high speed internet infrastructure in rural areas, but fall incredibly short when it comes to actually getting rural Americans online.
“His executive orders on rural broadband are so small it would be like claiming to solve the health care problem in America by changing policies around how people can make appointments,” said Christopher Mitchell, the directory for the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Considering rural America helped President Donald Trump win, it would make sense that the administration would want to tackle these voters’ top concern. About 39 percent of rural Americans—23 million people—still can’t access high speed internet. On Monday, while speaking at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention, President Trump emphasized that he knew this was one of the biggest problems facing farmers and rural communities.
“Last April, I commissioned a task force to meet with farmers and local communities and find the greatest barriers to rural prosperity,” Trump told the audience. “The task force heard from farmers that broadband internet access is an issue of vital concern to their communities and businesses.”
Trump then introduced two executive orders, which he proceeded to sign live on stage, aimed at easing red tape preventing new internet infrastructure from being built. The first of these orders calls upon the Department of the Interior to allow private companies access to infrastructure like radio towers on government-owned land. The second is to come up with a plan to reduce the amount of government paperwork needed to get permission to build internet in rural areas.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with these orders. Obtuse bureaucracy can definitely slow down and increase the cost of building internet infrastructure. But on the list of reasons why rural americans don’t have high speed internet, “too much paperwork” isn’t very high up.
“This is certainly something that’s long been on the list of reasonable things that you ought to do, but it’s unlikely to move the needle that much because the basic problem for broadband in rural areas is that you don’t have a sufficient way to return the cost,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at DC-based digital rights group Public Knowledge, over the phone.
Folks in rural communities don’t have access to high-speed internet because it costs a lot of money to install fiber across miles of remote countryside. If, after that initial investment, a company is going to only get two or three customers using that infrastructure, as is often the case in rural areas, it doesn’t make sense financial for these companies to build. So they don’t. And efforts from Big Telecom lobbyists to prevent communities from building their own internet, either as a public utility or part of a local co-op, have sabotaged the few options these people have.
To really solve this problem, the Trump administration is going to have to invest in real solutions. These could be costly, like providing grants or infrastructure budgets for the government to just build this internet itself. For all of Trump's talk about infrastructure investment during the campaign, he chose to prioritize Obamacare repeal and tax cuts for corporations over his $200 billion infrastructure proposal. There are also more fiscally-conservative options that would do a heck of a lot more than an executive order about cell phone towers in National Parks.
“One popular suggestion is the dig once rule,” Feld told me. “If you’re digging or improving federal highways or roads, you put in plastic conduits at the same time so that companies can put in fiber. There’s also federal fiber out there that could be shared for backhaul with rural carriers.”
This is a problem that has dogged this country since the dawn of the internet and it’s only getting worse as the internet expands to ever more areas of our lives. It’s not something that’s going to be solved through a couple signatures and a boastful speech. It’s going to take real action, real commitment, and likely, a lot of dough.