Broadband and Presidential Politics

For the first time in my memory, broadband has entered into presidential politics. This is an important milestone for rural broadband – not because of the proposals being made by candidates, but because it indicates that the voices of those without rural broadband have reached upward to the top of the political system.

I’m sure that when the presidential candidates go to rural areas that they are asked if they can help find a solution for the lack of broadband in many rural counties. For years I’ve heard from county Boards and Councils that broadband has bubbled up to the top of the list of issues in many rural counties. Rural residents are tired of having to make an extraordinary effort for their kids to do homework, tired of not being able to work from home, and tired of not being able to engage in things the rest of us take for granted.

Candidate proposals are big on rhetoric, but short on details. Some of the stated broadband policies are as follows:

  • The current administration is spending $16.4 billion this year for the largest federal broadband grant program ever. They are also spending $9 billion to expand rural cellular coverage.
  • Senator Bernie Sanders would provide $150 billion in grants and technical assistance for cities and municipalities to build publicly-owned fiber networks as part of a larger Green New Deal infrastructure initiative. That plan obviously extends far beyond a solution for rural broadband, and when cities are thrown into the mix, $150 billion is not going to bring fiber broadband everywhere. He further would regulate broadband as a utility and require that all ISPs offer a low-price ‘basic internet plan’ to make sure that the Internet is available to everybody.
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed $85 billion for public broadband as part of a larger infrastructure plan.
  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg has proposed an $80 billion Internet-for-All plan that would bring broadband to unserved communities.
  • Former Vice-president Joe Biden supports a $20 billion grant program for rural broadband.
  • Senator Amy Klobuchar proposes perhaps the most workable plan that would provide grants to service providers willing to serve rural America. She has likely based this plan on the successful Border-to-Border grant program in Minnesota.

All of these plans must be taken with a grain of salt because we know that many proposals made on the campaign trail are often forgotten by January after an election. We further have to be skeptical of presidential candidate promises for spending, because Presidents don’t get to spend the big dollar amounts being thrown around – Congress holds those purse strings. It’s possible that none of these candidates gets elected. It’s also possible that one of them gets elected and still would be unable to make headway on the rural broadband issue. For example, there might still be a split House and Senate, making it a challenge to agree on spending priorities. The federal government might get pulled in other directions for a wide variety of reasons and never get around to the rural broadband issue.

As somebody who understands what it takes to run an ISP, some of these ideas scare me. For example, the idea of handing broadband networks to municipalities scares because I know that the majority of local governments have zero interest in taking on that role. If this responsibility was thrust upon them many of them would do a lousy job. Even should networks be handed to governments for free, many are ill-equipped or unwilling to administer and maintain a network. The idea that we could legislate the creation of well-run government-owned ISPs everywhere is not in touch with the realities of the expertise required to own and operate a network. On the flip side, I hate the idea of giving any money to big ISPs to provide better broadband. We’ve seen how poorly that can go in the CAF II program.

I also always cringe whenever I hear the idea of regulating broadband as a utility. I am not against the idea of regulation, but the chances are that the federal government and politicians would goof it up and would create an absolute disaster. Regulating something as complex as broadband is a complicated endeavor and would be hard to get right if done at the federal level – if done poorly we could end up undoing the good than many ISPs have already done.

As an example of the challenge of regulating the industry, I can’t think of any easy mechanism to somehow drag all of the existing communities, telcos, cable companies, and fiber overbuilders that provide broadband into a regulated regime. Most of the entities that have built fiber have already taken on significant debt to build fiber networks. Short of the government paying off their existing loans, it’s hard to think how these companies could begin offering low regulated prices and still meet their existing debt obligations. I can easily list a hundred other issues that could go awry when regulating the industry. I am highly skeptical that Washington DC can figure out all of the nuances of how to do this the right way. I’m a lot more comfortable with the way we originally regulated telephone service – the federal government established broad policies and state regulatory bodies filled in the details.

I am just happy to see broadband being discussed during the election cycle. The same thing is happening at the state and local level, which is one of the main reasons that we’ve seen so many state broadband grant programs being formed. All of the lobbying being done by folks without broadband is finally seeing results – at least in promises being made by politicians. We just need to keep up the pressure until the political talk turns into broadband networks.