President Donald Trump bragged to the American Farm Bureau Association convention in Nashville, Tennessee on Monday that two new executive orders he’s signed will help solve the lingering problem of terrible rural broadband speeds.
According to the Reuters account, the orders make it “easier for the private sector to locate broadband infrastructure on federal land and buildings” and increase “access to tower facilities” managed by the Department of the Interior. Per the Washington Post, Trump told the assembled farmers that “Those towers are going to go up and you’re going to have great, great broadband.”
Hooey. People don’t have shitty rural internet because the oppressive federal government is preventing ISPs from digging through Yellowstone. As US News & World Report noted, the primary obstacle to getting rural areas hooked up has tended to be a lack of competition for the diminishing monetary returns as population density decreases. Most rural areas are still dependent on copper wire, which has limited capacity, and improving the situation will require massive amounts of cold, hard cash investment—around $80 billion, though the White House only actually proposed spending up to $25 billion.
So at best expanding use of federal land and facilities is a minor band-aid. At worst, it’s a distraction from the fact that Trump’s administration isn’t willing to propose the amount of funding needed, and in fact to date hasn’t provided any funding at all.
Even the White House admits this step is “incremental” and that they need more money as part of Trump’s promised $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which is almost certainly never going to be passed by a Republican-controlled Congress. As will surprise no one, there is a clear disconnect between Trump’s narrative and what the orders will actually accomplish.
There’s a silver lining for the administration, though. The Ajit Pai-controlled FCC is still considering proposals to redefine standards of acceptable broadband internet speeds—namely by claiming anyone with access to much lower speed mobile internet, which is often data capped, meets the standards. At the same time, it’s helping internet service providers abandon those copper networks, knowing full well expensive mobile bandwidth isn’t really a replacement for broadband. So even if rural Americans’ broadband is unacceptably slow or ISPs choose to turn off their aging, less-profitable copper lines entirely, Trump’s White House can shift the goalposts to claim partial victory without spending a dollar.