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Rural Broadband Makes Final Cut in White House Infrastructure Outline

Randy Sukow Feb 12, 2018

The White House formally released the outline of its proposed $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild American infrastructure. Unlike an earlier draft of the plan leaked to the press last month, this outline includes specific ways that rural broadband projects could receive some of that funding over the next 10 years.

In addition to distributing financial support, the outline proposes deregulatory measures that could reduce regulatory barriers to both wireline and wireless communications in rural America and beyond.

“Too often, regulatory barriers make it harder and more expensive to build out broadband than it needs to be—to the detriment of American consumers.  That’s why this plan is a welcome and strong call to action,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in reaction to the outline. “I stand ready to work with the Administration and Congress to turn this plan into a reality as we continue to bridge the digital divide and extend 5G digital opportunity to all Americans.”

“As the president and Congress work together to finalize an infrastructure proposal, it’s important that the package continue to focus on more than roads and bridges,” said NRECA CEO Jim Matheson in a statement. “A vibrant 21st century rural economy depends on expanded high-speed internet access and electric grid modernization efforts. We look forward to supporting an infrastructure bill that addresses the needs of rural families and communities.”

The 53-page outline released this morning includes significantly more detail than the six-page draft that the Axios website published three weeks ago. The new document continues to include a “Rural Infrastructure Program” and specifies $50 billion in funding, rather than the earlier-reported “25 percent of total appropriation.”

Most importantly, where the earlier draft limited eligible projects to water and electricity, the official draft also includes roads, bridges, airports and other transportation-related projects as well as “broadband [and other high-speed data and communication conduits].”

Like the earlier draft, the current version makes 80 percent of the money in the Rural Infrastructure Program available to the states in the form of block grants, which the states would then distribute to local infrastructure projects. Twenty percent of the funding would go to “rural performance grants within eligible asset classes and according to specified criteria.” States applying for rural performance grants would submit a rural infrastructure investment plan (RIIP) describing how they intend to use the grant, which could be for state, local or private sector projects.

The outline also makes broadband eligible for the “Transformative Projects Program.” This $20 billion program is aimed at projects that “fundamentally transform the way infrastructure is delivered or operated.” The Department of Commerce would administer the program, which would encourage new technology development and allow awardees to dedicate portions of financial support toward demonstration and project-planning functions.

In addition, the draft includes several deregulatory proposals that potentially could lower the cost of broadband and 5G wireless networks. For example, the administration proposes streamlining environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) through a centralized “one-agency, one-decision” process. Another proposal would seek to increase the efficiency of small-cell wireless network construction needed for many 5G networks.

“Current law requires that wireless deployers comply with both NEPA and the National Historic Preservation Act [NHPA] for small cells and Wi-Fi attachments in the same way that they obtain permits for large towers,” the outline says. “Small cells and Wi-Fi attachments do not have an environmental footprint, nor do they disturb the environment or historic property … Amending the law to expedite small cells and Wi-Fi attachments in NEPA and the NHPA would eliminate unnecessary reviews without adversely affecting the environment.”

Any funds that go to broadband projects through the infrastructure bill would be in addition to $20 billion Congress and the Trump Administration seek to pass through the budget process. At the same time, today’s outline also proposes to expand low-interest loan programs through the Rural Utilities Service. That would include the RUS broadband program.

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