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The Internet Wonk’s Guide to the Trump Administration’s New American Broadband Initiative

Drew Clark

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February 13, 2019 - The Trump Administration on Wednesday highlighted the importance of enhancing broadband internet service for America, particularly in rural areas, as it promoted a variety of existing federal initiatives under a new brand, the "American Broadband Initiative."

Through the issuance of a new "Milestones Report" by the Agriculture Department and the Commerce Department, the Trump administration emphasized continuity with a range of broadband initiatives begun under President Obama.

The report also highlighted two executive actions taken by President Trump in January 2018,  as well as the president's words on January 8, 2018, when he appeared at a meeting of the American Farm Bureau, that "Americans Need Access to reliable, affordable broadband internet service to succeed in today's information-driven, global economy."

See also:
Broadband Breakfast: Trump Signs Executive Order Expediting Rural Broadband with Federal Lands, Towers and Fiber (January 2018)

Broadband Breakfast: Trump Administration Turns Focus to Rural Broadband and Dark Fiber at American Farm Bureau Meeting (January 2018)

Although the report put the Trump administration's spin on the "actions that agencies are taking to increase private-sector investment in broadband," it didn't repudiate many of the broadband infrastructure-focused actions of the Obama administration's second term.

It noted that "previous attempts to expand broadband connectivity have made progress and provided valuable lessons that guide this initiative."

Under the Trump administration, most of the public-facing actions on broadband policy have been centered around ensuring that Rural America is adequately connected.

Indeed, the White House's blog post on the American Broadband Initiative emphases the rural component front and center:

  • [W]ithout access to reliable high-speed broadband, too many Americans are being left out of those opportunities. This is particularly true in rural America, where nearly 39 percent of Americans lack sufficient broadband access.

But the report can also be read as the Commerce Department re-asserting its leadership role over broadband initiatives.

For example, referring to that agency's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), one of the core points early in the report reads that the American Broadband Initiative "[b]uilds on NTIA's mission as the agency principally responsible for advising the administration on telecommunications and information policy."

No new funding for broadband, but ABI coordinates and streamlines many existing programs

The report does not unveil any new funding to be spent on broadband infrastructure or usage, although it does prominently feature details USDA's ReConnect program. That program was unveiled in December 2018 to implement $600 million in rural broadband grants and loans put in place by the March 2018 omnibus budget bill.

See also:
Broadband Breakfast: ReConnect, a Long-Awaited Agriculture Department Broadband Program, Unveiled by Secretary Sonny Perdue (December 2018)

The PDF report groups together dozens of federal actions within three core categories: (1) streamlining federal permitting processes; (2) leveraging federal assets like land and towers; and (3) maximizing the impact of existing federal funding.

As part of these high-level categories, the program seeks to catalyze private investment in rural broadband, leverage 7,000 towers located on federal lands generally administered by the Interior Department, potentially use other federal assets for such towers, create a one-stop shop at the NTIA for information about getting permits on federal lands for broadband infrastructure, revising the form to make use federal lands for broadband, and more.

This last item highlights Executive Order 13821, “Streamlining and Expediting Requests to Locate Broadband Facilities in Rural America,” the January 2018 Trump action aiming to boost rural broadband.

Additional high-level goals of the ABI including implementing the e-Connectivity “call to action” from the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, and establishing a coordination vehicle for the broadband provisions in the Consolidated Budget Act of 2018.

Broadband infrastructure and access is woefully inadequate in Rural America

The heart of the 62-page report consists of a brief summary of the state of broadband in America -- again highlighting the lack of quality broadband in Rural America -- and a series of federal "workstreams" under the new name, the American Broadband Initiative.

These workstreams piece together the actions of 25 federal agencies on the broadband front. The language suggests building upon but also "refocus[ing] the work of the Broadband Interagency Working Group." That group was created in the second Obama administration.

In regards to broadband deployment, the report highlights the fact that only 2 percent of Americans in cities lack access to broadband (as defined by the Federal Communications Commission as 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Megabits per second upload).

The comparable number for residents of Rural America is that 30 percent lack access to broadband. The report attributes this disparity to the lower population density, increasing costs of broadband construction, and higher service charges.

Additionally, as the report notes, "The 2017 Computer and Internet Survey of over 123,000 Americans commissioned by NTIA and administered by the Census Bureau found that more than 65 percent of rural Americans use the Internet at home compared to almost 73 percent of urban residents, a gap that has remained fairly constant over the past 20 years."

On mobile deployment, 90.5 percent of Americans living in urban areas have access to 4G LTE services, whereas only 70 percent of rural Americans enjoy that option.

A series of workstreams making agencies accountable for broadband actions on deadline

The portion of the report outlining the administration's broadband workstreams lists multiple-step actions items -- with the agencies accountable and their deadlines -- on these four policy fronts:

  1. Streamline Federal Permitting
  2. Leverage Federal Assets for Broadband Deployment
  3. Maximize the Impact of Federal Funding
  4. Additional Agency Actions in Support of the Initiative

Section three, on maximizing the impact of federal funding, begins by highlighting the NTIA's BroadbandUSA website and the importance of broadband availability data.

Such data collection began with the FCC with the agency’s Form 477, moved over to the NTIA (through a partnership with state entities) and the FCC under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, bopped back to the FCC after the end of the State Broadband Initiative, and - per legislation recently passed by Congress - will return to the NTIA in September 2019.

The section of the report on federal funding workstreams continued by discussing USDA's new funding program, accountability measures for federal funding, engaging private sector and state leaders through NTIA’s State Broadband Leaders Network, plus partnerships promoting broadband access for veterans.

Two new broadband developments highlighted in the report include hosting a summit on broadband connectivity on tribal lands, to take place by the Spring of 2019, and a report by the FCC on broadband coverage in Indian Country, also due this spring.

The document also notes the publication of a National Science Foundation/NTIA report on the National Broadband Research Agenda, published in January 2017, and ongoing research into the subject.

It also mentioned broadband eligibility guidance in application materials for the New Markets Tax Credit Program in June 2018, building on initial guidance issued in 2015.

Press releases on the ABI from the departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Interior

Agency press releases issued with the report highlight particular approaches to broadband policy.

"This work fulfills the President’s call to use all possible policy tools to accelerate the deployment and adoption of reliable high-speed broadband connectivity in all parts of America," read the Commerce Department's release.

“The American Broadband Initiative will help government and industry target resources in the most efficient manner so all Americans can fully participate in advanced communications technologies," said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

“A huge team effort across more than 20 agencies has gone into creating this report, and we look forward to delivering on this commitment to improve broadband deployment,” said David Redl, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and head of the NTIA.

Redl also published a separate blog post in which he noted:

  • "We congratulate the Department of Interior on the launch of the new Joint Overview Established Location Map, which pulls data related to federal lands and assets from multiple agencies into a single map. This map will help the broadband industry more easily identify the location of available assets. It is an important first step in one of the Initiative’s core priorities: making it easier for the private sector to leverage federal assets to promote investment."

The USDA release highlighted the totemic role of an agency report from October 2017, a task force report on agriculture and rural prosperity.

“Last year, I presented the findings of the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to President Trump at the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention," read Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's statement from his agency's press release.

"The American Broadband Initiative Milestones Report reflects that work on behalf of taxpayers and displays the federal government’s commitment as a strong business partner to the private sector in deploying broadband infrastructure. The American Broadband Initiative also reaffirms this Administration’s commitment to reducing regulatory barriers and improving the quality of life for those living in rural America," Perdue's statement continued.

Although the Interior Department currently lacks a confirmed head, the agency press release on the subject noted:

“As a native of the small town of Rifle, Colorado, I know firsthand how important it is for rural communities to have to access to reliable and fast broadband services,” said Acting U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. “Interior manages nearly one fifth of the surface acreage in the United States, much of which encompasses rural areas, and therefore has an important role to play in permitting broadband infrastructure.

(Photo from the American Farm Bureau.)

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