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Trump Showed 'Positive' Reception to Broadband Infrastructure Ideas, Senators Say

President Donald Trump seems receptive to prioritizing broadband access, potentially through his infrastructure proposal, senators who raised the issue with him told us. During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump invoked plans for an infrastructure stimulus of as much as $1 trillion, and this year several lawmakers from both chambers and parties pressed the White House to incorporate broadband funding through such a vehicle. Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., a key Trump liaison to the House, cautioned it’s too soon to say.

"The president was very supportive," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who sits on the Commerce Committee, leads the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing FCC funding, and co-chairs the Senate Broadband Caucus. "We were trying to impress 'let’s put this in an infrastructure bill' when and if it comes. He seemed very positive, very positive."

Capito directly raised the issue during a private Feb. 9 lunch meeting at the White House including Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and 10 senators from both parties (see 1702090066). Trump will speak before a joint session of Congress Tuesday and likely discuss infrastructure, part of "a strong blueprint of where he wants to take this country," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters.

"I think the president was looking for people to mention things that they could support that he could support, and he was, I thought, positive," agreed Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, another attendee. As GOP whip, Cornyn is the No. 2 Senate Republican.

"We talked about it," affirmed Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also present in the closed-door meeting with Trump. "I don’t think there was any pushback but there wasn’t any 'yeah, we’ve got this plan we’re going to do' either. It was a decent conversation."

House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., directly raised the issue with Trump separately. "We are looking forward to broadband expansion," she said during a Feb. 16 listening session in the White House’s Roosevelt Room. "Go broadband!" She backed its inclusion in recent months and was part of the Trump transition effort. "We're going to get it," Trump told Blackburn. During Tuesday's town hall in Fairview, Tennessee, Blackburn expressed confidence: "You’re going to see broadband as part of the infrastructure bill," Blackburn told one attendee.

The Senate Commerce Committee tentatively scheduled an infrastructure hearing Wednesday, with a focus on rural priorities and likely featuring testimony from NTCA on broadband, industry lobbyists told us this week. Broadband also came up during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on infrastructure earlier this month (see 1702090020).

The possibility of a broadband funding infusion dominates telecom chatter this year. The administration has offered no concrete infrastructure proposal and didn't comment. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., who backs broadband inclusion, said last week he hadn't "seen anything yet" despite talking to administration officials regularly (see 1702140055). At last week’s Incompas meeting, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said he told Trump to include telecom, but Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, warned that he doubts any package will emerge to unite Republicans and Democrats and that it may be simply "a twinkle in someone’s eye" (see 1702150068). Senate Democrats recently presented their own $1 trillion package, with $20 billion slated for broadband.

No Guarantee

"I don’t know," Collins, a House Communications Subcommittee member tapped as Trump’s liaison to the House, said in an interview about the likelihood. "I do know there’s monies through the FCC, [through USF]. So there is monies. They have to be properly deployed. Would everyone and anyone want a jump-start to that? I suppose so. But it is moving, the broadband is moving, maybe not as fast as we’d like. We have to see. Do we have $1 trillion or do we have $300 billion? And what are the priorities? We’ve got roads, bridges, airports, hospitals, broadband -- that’ll be a discussion a little bit further down the road when we know how much money we’ve got."

Capito said conversations aren't limited, but ongoing. "I've talked with Vice President Pence about this," she said. "I just want to keep talking about it. Because it’s not particularly flamboyant to talk about but it’s just critical, especially if you don’t have it." FCC Chairman Ajit Pai "obviously is weighing in on this now" and the Agriculture Department "has a place," she said. "I’ve talked to Wilbur Ross about Commerce," she said of Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary, scheduled to receive a floor confirmation vote Monday. The administration hasn't put forth a name for NTIA administrator. Capito cited Ross’ efforts with an Underground Utilities Task Force in Florida, which he mentioned during his January confirmation hearing, where he called broadband an essential part of infrastructure (see 1701180069). "Thune’s talked about it too," Capito added, touting what she called "a nice critical mass."

Lawmakers are considering "including broadband as part of an infrastructure package, and I very vigorously propose that," Pai told CNBC in an appearance Wednesday, referring to the possibility of Congress "giving the private sector more tools" in this regard.

Within Trump’s orbit, key administration officials on infrastructure are believed to be Ross and Peter Navarro, who heads the new White House National Trade Council. The two men wrote a joint paper in October, during their time as senior campaign advisers, on Trump’s infrastructure ambitions, with heavy emphasis on tax credits. Jared Kushner, a senior Trump adviser and son-in-law to the president, has a background that should make it "particularly easy for him to understand the need for open, multipurpose, do-it-once infrastructure that forces competition into markets where it has withered," said Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford in a blog post after the election, citing past meetings with Kushner and emphasizing his understanding of connectivity issues. She backed inclusion of an infrastructure bank with an eye toward digital needs.

"Congress should consider setting aside some portion of a new infrastructure fund, say $20 billion, for a one-time rural broadband acceleration fund that is expressly designed to make the FCC’s universal service program more efficient," said a joint blog post Monday from Brookings Institution senior fellow Blair Levin and former Wireline Bureau Deputy Chief Carol Mattey, now a consultant. They see bipartisan opportunity. "This is a mechanism that’ll accelerate dollars in a very efficient manner," Levin, who formerly led efforts on the National Broadband Plan, told us of their recommendations.

Short on Detail

Funding mechanisms and the possible pool of recipients is under ongoing debate. Thune stresses any infrastructure package must be paid for, and some lawmakers refer to repatriation of U.S. corporate funds held abroad as one possible funding source. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters last week he sees infrastructure as one possibly bipartisan priority, and he expects a recommendation from the administration. "No action to build infrastructure," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., lamented during a recent news conference, scoffing at time wasted. Thune said last week a package likely would need to include "other types of project funding in it" beyond private money to accommodate rural areas and could potentially be attached to tax overhaul legislation, expected for possible advancement through a second budget reconciliation process in summer or fall.

"Private dollars, yes, but we can maybe repurpose some of these older programs, for instance rural utilities services through [the Agriculture Department]," Capito said. "We’ve deployed electrical service all over the country now. We’ve succeeded." She mentioned some money is already being repurposed. Capito also touted "areas within healthcare that can start to move this for telehealth purposes."

Collins places faith in existing funding mechanisms, he told us. "There’s the one and the only -- Ajit Pai," Collins said of where government leaders stand on broadband. He praised Pai’s decision to keep the $170 million in Connect America Fund money forsaken by Verizon within the state of New York, and for creation of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.

One veteran telecom industry observer questioned whether the Trump administration has the apparatus necessary. There doesn't seem to be enough people and enough focus on policy, the observer said, unclear on who may be at the table driving the infrastructure proposal. Even in the lawmaker requests on incorporating broadband, the observer saw many unanswered questions, involving criteria for eligibility, which authority decides and on distribution.

During the Feb. 9 White House meeting, the conversation focused on "broadband as it applies to rural America and how we need to make sure the underserved areas have access because it’s a really critical component for economic development in those areas," Tester said. Cornyn pointed to Tester and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., as driving forces behind the discussion. "I think Senator Tester and Senator Heitkamp were promoting broadband as a good way to develop infrastructure," Cornyn said. "In other words, it’s not just highways, roads and bridges but also rural broadband." The meeting involved "ideas being kicked around," Cornyn said. "When you look at who was there, it was me and Heitkamp and Tester and Cornyn, lots of rural people," Capito said.