Broadband part of $2 trillion infrastructure deal between Democrats, Trump

But rural Americans waiting for broadband shouldn't hold their breath. Republicans still need to weigh in.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
President Donald Trump Meets With Speaker Pelosi And Senate Leader Schumer To Discuss Infrastructure

Congressional Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), talk to reporters following a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House to discuss infrastructure.

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Broadband is expected to be part of the $2 trillion spending plan on infrastructure that President Donald Trump agreed to in a meeting with Democratic leaders. 

On Tuesday, Trump met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at the White House to begin discussions about a new infrastructure spending plan. 

"We agreed on a number, which was very, very good: $2 trillion for infrastructure," Schumer told reporters outside the White House, according to a report from CBS News. "Originally we had started a little lower, even the president was willing to push it up to $2 trillion. And that is a very good thing."

Though there are still many details to be worked out, such as how the government will pay this hefty price, there was some agreement on the types of projects that would get funding, which included spending on broadband networks.

CBS also reported that White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump and Democrats "had an excellent and productive meeting on rebuilding our nation's crumbling infrastructure including roads, highways, bridges, tunnels and railroads, modernizing our air travel system, and expanding broadband access for our great farmers and rural America."

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, a trade organization representing many rural broadband providers, applauded the agreement. He said it was critical that any infrastructure plan hashed out by Congress include "a commitment to broadband deployment in unserved areas of the country" to narrow the digital divide and modernize networks throughout the country.

"Any infrastructure plan should future-proof new infrastructure with fiber capabilities so new technology can be integrated and modified as years go by," Spalter said. "Smart, connected solutions should be an integral part of every mile of American infrastructure constructed or reconstructed in the coming years."

This isn't the first time Trump has talked about improving broadband access for rural Americans. Earlier this month, the White House in coordination with the Federal Communications Commission announced the Rural Digital Opportunity, which reallocates $20.4 billion in funding from the FCC's existing Universal Service Fund over the next 10 years to subsidize eligible companies to build out broadband infrastructure in underserved areas.

The FCC already spends on average about $4 billion a year to subsidize rural broadband deployments, and yet 19 million Americans, most of whom live in hard to reach places, still lack high-speed internet access. The result is what many call the "digital divide" between rural and urban America. Roughly 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband, compared with just 4 percent of urban Americans, according to an FCC report that uses 2016 figures.

The internet rural Americans can access is also slower and more expensive than it is for their urban counterparts.

But building networks in rural America is incredibly expensive, and in some places it's nearly impossible. The terrain can be a problem. Mountainous areas or places where the ground could be frozen for more than half the year make it nearly impossible to install fiber or other infrastructure.

The biggest barrier to getting broadband in many remote areas of the country is low population density. Broadband providers simply won't offer service if they can't get enough customers to pay for it.

This is where government subsidies can help. But so far the White House has been reluctant to commit large sums of government funds.

A little more than a year ago, the White House put forth a proposal to help rebuild infrastructure, with a total price tag of $1.5 trillion. But critics pointed out that the proposal called for only about $200 billion in government spending and instead relied heavily on funding from the private sector and private-public partnerships. At that time, there was no mention of broadband being included in the package.

Infrastructure is the one area in which Trump and congressional Democrats, who are also in the midst of several oversight investigations around the president's business dealings and other conduct, agree. When Democrats took control of the House in November, Trump said infrastructure could be an area in which they work together.

Still, it's early days in the discussion. And given that no other Republicans were at the meeting, there's a strong likelihood that conservatives in the House and Senate will balk at the $2 trillion price tag.