Rural internet to be high priority for Trump administration

President Trump will express support during a speech to the largest U.S. farm group today for a dramatic expansion of high-speed internet service in rural America. The strategy will be a springboard for economic growth for a segment of the population dogged by lower wages and higher poverty rates than the rest of the nation, said a White House adviser. The president also is expected to call for greater use of federal forests and fewer hurdles to agricultural biotechnology, two areas that may be lightning rods for controversy.

The White House aimed to release task force recommendations for rural prosperity in conjunction with the president’s speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation, meeting in Nashville. The task force was headed by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has remarked that the internet is the 21st-century equivalent of the demand in the past for water, sewer, and highways.

Administration officials have shied away from setting a timeline for providing high-speed internet throughout rural America or estimating its cost. The FCC estimates 39 percent of rural Americans lack broadband.

In a trip to Iowa last June, Trump said his $1-trillion infrastructure plan would include a provision “to promote and foster and enhance broadband access for rural America.” He did not say how large the commitment would be or how it would be financed. Some estimates say it would costs tens of billions of dollars to achieve the goal.

Trump recognizes rural America was crucial to his election “and has to be part of any broad-based economic success that he would have during his tenure,” White House agriculture adviser Ray Starling told reporters. Internet connectivity is central to economic improvement and high-speed internet would remain a high priority for the administration, he said.

In his speech — the first major speech since enactment of tax cuts — the president was expected to cite the task force recommendations and express support for them, said Starling, who put connectivity at the top of his list, followed by “putting our forest(s) to even greater use” and minimizing government hurdles to technology, specifically biotechnology.

“It is not lost on us that the farm bill expires later this year and so I would watch for the president’s urgings on that,” said Starling. The White House is expected to let Congress take the lead, as it traditionally does, on the farm bill, panoramic legislation that ranges from food stamps and farm subsidies to soil conservation and ag research, with a cost of around $90 billion a year. The administration proposed large cuts to Agriculture Department spending last year. The USDA will take a fair share of any future budget cuts, according to a senior administration official.

Some steps can be taken in the near term to expand broadband networks, said Grace Koh of the National Economic Council. One would be clearer and easier rules for installing antennas on federal buildings and towers. “We will seek to use ‘dark fiber’ that the agencies have deployed in order to allow rural providers to interconnect and provide service to communities that have not had access to broadband before,” said Koh. “Dark fiber” is fiber optic cable that has been installed but is not in use. The administration will also coordinate funding, scattered among agencies, for broadband deployment and adoption.

“We are hoping at this point to have a few immediate actions to start right away,” said Koh. “And certainly, we anticipate being able to make towers and other infrastructure from the Department of Interior available for collocation. This should cut down on tower construction costs and allow for providers to get their plant and equipment out much more quickly.”

The lower population density of rural areas provides less impetus to businesses to lay expensive fiber optic cable. During the Depression, the Roosevelt administration created a USDA agency, the Rural Electrification Administration, to accelerate the wiring of rural America.