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Democrats torch Trump failures on rural digital divide

POLITICO logo POLITICO 8/17/2019 By John Hendel
Elizabeth Warren wearing a microphone: Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other candidates contend that the administration failed to accurately measure broadband availability. © Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other candidates contend that the administration failed to accurately measure broadband availability.

Democrats are offering President Donald Trump's rural supporters a reason to turn against him in 2020 — his failure to bring them the high-speed internet he promised.

Several presidential candidates including Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have rolled out proposals for tens of billions in new federal dollars to bring fast broadband service to rural America, with Warren’s $85 billion plan leading the spending pack.

They call broadband yet another example of Trump letting down people who helped send him to the White House in 2016, including people in the same farm-heavy states suffering from the president’s trade wars. Trump’s challengers also say the slow internet speeds that prevail in much of the nation are a drag on the economy and a threat to U.S. competitiveness.

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“I see that the country of Iceland has all hooked up, and we’re not,” Democratic hopeful Amy Klobuchar told POLITICO when asked about Trump’s record. The Minnesota senator pledges to connect all U.S. households to broadband by 2022.

Calling out the country's "failure to invest in rural areas," Warren wrote in a blog post last week that "both corporate America and leaders in Washington have turned their backs on the people living in our rural communities and prioritized the interests of giant companies and Wall Street instead."

Trump pledged during the 2016 campaign to deliver broadband to rural Americans as part of a trillion-dollar national infrastructure package. Leaders of his 2020 reelection campaign also cited the need for rural connectivity earlier this year as they tried to pitch the Trump administration on a plan for a government intervention to spur along super-fast 5G wireless connectivity.

But Trump’s big infrastructure plan went nowhere in Congress, and the president has disavowed the idea of federal meddling in 5G, preferring to let the private sector take the lead. Meanwhile, rural areas continue to heavily lag cities in internet availability and speeds.

"Farmers and ranchers and producers literally cannot get online," former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke declared while campaigning in Iowa this summer. "They can't go to Tinder to find a date tonight. ... I want to make sure every American has that opportunity."

Many of the Democrats lay the blame for broadband’s persistently sluggish nationwide expansion on Trump and his Federal Communications Commission chief, Ajit Pai.

Warren and other candidates contend that the administration has even failed to accurately measure broadband availability, saying the number of Americans stuck with limited or no fast internet access could be far higher than the official FCC figures suggest. (The commission estimates that about a quarter of rural Americans lack access to internet fast enough to qualify as broadband, or at least 25 megabits per second.)

The first plank of a wide-ranging rural broadband plan Buttigieg put out this week is to "invest in new ways to more accurately map which communities lack broadband or wireless." The current FCC outlook, his campaign said, is "inaccurate and perpetuates inequity."

Many of the White House hopefuls suggest they can succeed where Trump hasn’t and aren’t shy about rolling out big numbers. Warren and Buttigieg lead the pack, recently proposing, respectively, $85 billion and $80 billion in federal spending on broadband — initiatives that would include what both called a "public option" to support local government-run broadband networks that are now illegal in many states.

Fellow contender Kirsten Gillibrand — who joins Warren, Buttigieg and Cory Booker in backing municipal internet service — last week floated $60 billion in broadband spending. Biden advocates a more modest $20 billion investment.

These platforms come as Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee recommend a $40 billion bump, creating additional pressure from Congress.

And the push made it to the Democratic debate stage July 30, when Klobuchar, among the leaders of the Senate’s Broadband Caucus, stressed the need for infrastructure cash. She revived Trump's old call for $1 trillion in infrastructure, saying she would raise the money by hiking taxes on the rich and then “put it into rural broadband.”

Trump campaign officials and allies maintain that the administration has done a great deal on rural broadband even without billions in federal infrastructure funding — though in fact, his accomplishments mainly include more modest pilot projects, efforts to streamline internet rollouts and a rebranding of an existing rural broadband effort.

“While Democrats are picking numbers out of the sky, conveniently as they descend on Iowa, President Trump has been busy delivering real results,” said Trump campaign deputy press secretary Daniel Bucheli. “This administration has focused on expanding broadband infrastructure, including investments in the cutting-edge industries to include rural broadband.”

Trump’s effort to close the digital divide between urban and rural parts of the country “has been possible through a combination of private/public investment, regulatory reform and a booming economy,” Bucheli said.

Several administration players, from Pai to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, have touted rural broadband as a key executive branch priority over the past three years.

Trump claims a handful of victories on that front, including more than $600 million last year for a USDA broadband pilot program, executive orders and FCC actions aimed at streamlining the deployment of internet infrastructure, and improved coordination among agencies to marshal existing subsidies and improve data collection. This year, Trump and Pai joined to rebrand an existing broadband subsidy funding under a new name, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which promises $20.4 billion in government aid to support rural broadband over the next decade. (The name of the program is new, but the money is not.)

Yet none of the efforts comes close to the fresh billions the administration and lawmakers of both parties once hoped to direct to rural connectivity.

The Trump White House offered a $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal last year that would have dedicated $50 billion for rural areas, as part of an overall plan intended to kick-start state spending on a range of transportation, economic and other needs with a bit of federal buy-in. That plan would have let state officials decide whether to spend that money on broadband, as opposed to projects like roads or bridges, so it was never clear how much of the $50 billion pot may have ended up going to internet access.

In any case, Congress didn't bite on the proposal, and the most recent attempt at high-level infrastructure negotiations blew up in May as Trump erupted at congressional Democrats for investigating his administration.

“If I were in the White House right now, I would point to the fact that we had a plan,” DJ Gribbin, Trump’s former top infrastructure adviser, told POLITICO. “We took a big swing.”

Unless Democrats sweep the White House and both houses of Congress in 2020, rural broadband funding will likely require bipartisan wrangling. And some of the biggest cheerleaders for unlocking broadband infrastructure money have in fact been rural-state Republicans such as West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who co-chairs the Senate Broadband Caucus alongside Klobuchar and other senators. But Trump was unable to strike an infrastructure deal even when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress.

“We’ve still got too far to go, so I get impatient with it,” Capito told POLITICO. “We’re making strides; it’s just small steps to get to the last folks.”

Crews work on the dish on the Pollard cell tower in rural Rio Blanco County near Meeker, Colorado, in 2017. © Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images Crews work on the dish on the Pollard cell tower in rural Rio Blanco County near Meeker, Colorado, in 2017. Democratic presidential aspirants contend they can do better.

Blair Levin, a former FCC official under the Obama and Clinton administrations, said the broadband talk from the presidential hopefuls is "not an accident. This is a reflection of what the candidates are hearing on the campaign trail ... in living rooms and in coffee shops."

That has underscored the need to make connectivity a centerpiece of 2020 in a way it wasn't the last several election cycles, said Levin, who helped create a national broadband plan nine years ago.

"This is a profound shift,” Levin said. “Americans understand that without broadband, they’re not going to be connected to the economic and civic life and that they need it."

Trump’s GOP defenders insist the administration is still making headway. Some Republicans on Capitol Hill emphasize attempts at optimizing the use of existing substantial subsidies and efforts to fix the shoddy broadband mapping, which some see as a prerequisite to high-dollar investment.

“I think we’re building up steam in lots of different ways. We just need to harness that together,” said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), a Broadband Caucus co-chair who disputes that any letdown has occurred.

But the administration’s modest boosts to capital investment don’t provide the more holistic super-charge that the U.S. may need to light up the whole country with high-speed broadband, according to some consumer advocates and industry providers.

Shirley Bloomfield, who represents more than 800 rural telecommunications providers as chief of the trade group NTCA, said in an interview that she came away “disappointed” after meetings with Trump officials early in the administration failed to result in muscular rural broadband policies or funding.

"You don’t have that complete coordination, which would have really created a national strategy for how we’re going to tackle broadband connectivity for all Americans," she said. "I think people got distracted by a lot of other topics and ... felt politically kind of backed into their corners, and I think the window closed."

But, Bloomfield added, “There’s always 2021, you know.”

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