For the rest of December, Washington Examiner reporters will be exploring what 2018 has in store in a number of areas, from the White House and Congress to energy and defense. See all of our year ahead stories here.
Expanding access to broadband has emerged as one of the few issues that enjoys bicameral and bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, and 2018 is shaping up to be the year in which the White House, Congress, and the private sector unite to bridge the digital divide.
The White House has pledged to turn its attention to an infrastructure package once Congress passed legislation reforming the tax code, and members of the Trump administration focused on infrastructure have been working with Capitol Hill to address the president’s infrastructure priorities, which include broadband access.
The details of the infrastructure package, expected in January, haven’t been revealed, but a White House official said the plan will include a “dedicated portion of funding” for rural projects, with "no limit" on how much can be spent on broadband.
The White House is also awaiting a report, due next year, from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that identifies legislative, regulatory, or policy changes that in part promote technological innovation and infrastructure improvements in rural parts of the country.
Trump asked Perdue to oversee the effort as chairman of the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity.
“President Trump is focused on ensuring that the forgotten men and women of American are forgotten no more, and that’s why he’s directed his administration to focus on policies that will increase connectivity in rural areas,” the official said.
Trump plans to roll out the details of his infrastructure package before the State of the Union on Jan. 30, and Congress will then be tasked with implementing the president’s priorities.
Already, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are gearing up to move on measures to expand access to broadband, and some hope the president’s infrastructure package will include language from already-passed legislation.
The Senate, for example, passed Sen. John Thune’s MOBILE NOW Act by unanimous consent this year. The bill “facilitates the adoption of ‘dig-once’ policies by states” and establishes a shot clock for federal agencies to approve applications and permit requests for placing wireless infrastructure on federal property.
Dig-once policies, which have broad bipartisan support, require broadband conduit to be laid at the same time highway construction or other below-ground infrastructure takes place.
Thune, R-S.D., the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he hopes language from the MOBILE NOW Act, as well as another bill he’s working on with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, that’s focused on broadband deployment on non-federal land, becomes part of Trump’s infrastructure plan.
On the House side, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, led by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., is also making broadband expansion a top priority for 2018, the committee said.
Both the White House and Congress already have a willing partner in these efforts to expand broadband to rural and underserved areas in the Federal Communications Commission.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai made closing the digital divide a cornerstone of his agenda when he took the helm of the agency in 2017, and the FCC said it will continue to be a top priority for the chairman in 2018.
Pai began 2017 by launching the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, which was tasked with reducing barriers to broadband infrastructure. He traveled more than 4,000 miles to visit areas of the country that lack access to broadband or are underserved.
He also introduced the concept of “Gigabit Opportunity Zones,” which would provide tax incentives to the private sector to deploy broadband in low-income areas of the country.
The FCC chairman is hoping his idea is included in Trump’s infrastructure package next year.
Pai will also be focused on modernizing the commission’s rules and programs to “ensure that digital opportunity extends to every American,” an FCC spokesperson said.
Any efforts to expand broadband will require buy-in from the private sector, which has already shown a willingness to invest in broadband infrastructure next year and beyond.
Comcast said it will invest more than $50 billion over the next five years in infrastructure in part to “radically improve and extend our broadband plant and capacity.”
The Consumer Technology Association, a trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer tech companies, is also encouraged by the support broadband expansion has across both parties and both chambers of Congress.
“This is a great opportunity as we move into the next phase of a priority for the Trump administration,” said Tiffany Moore, vice president of congressional affairs for the group. “It’s something that’s bipartisan and bicameral—making sure we have the infrastructure, not just bridges and roads, to advance and create the next generation of entrepreneurs, the next technologies we’re excited about today, but also allowing for the development of new technologies and must-have things that we won’t believe we ever lived without.”
Moore said the Consumer Technology Association is focusing its efforts on reducing regulatory barriers that hinder broadband infrastructure, a focus that aligns with Trump’s commitment to reducing the regulatory burden and cutting red tape.
“It’s completely in line with what the administration is trying to do with their regulatory proposals,” she said. “This will also be valuable with making sure we deploy more broadband, not just to rural communities but urban areas as well.”
Those efforts would include dig-once policies, which she said will be “central” broadband infrastructure, as well as the MOBILE NOW Act and the SPEED Act, or the Streamlining Permitting to Enable Efficient Deployment of Broadband Infrastructure Act.
The bill, introduced by Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., aims to streamline the federal permitting processes that can thwart deployment of broadband technologies, including 5G.
“If you look at all of these emerging technologies that are on the cusp of being realized, which is 5G, self-driving vehicles, Internet of Things, all of these things will require broadband infrastructure,” Moore said.
The Consumer Technology Association has been discussing broadband expansion with the Trump administration, and Moore said both Trump and the private sector appear to be on the same page regarding their desire for the United States to “maintain its leadership” with developing emerging technologies.