President Donald J. Trump signed on Monday two orders aimed at improving internet speeds in some of the country’s hardest-to-connect areas, a move he described as “the first step to expand access to broadband internet in rural America.”
The first executive order aims to make it easier for internet service providers to locate broadband infrastructure on federal land and buildings in rural parts of the country. The order notes that one of the consequences of slow, expensive internet service is that it hinders schools’ ability to “enrich student learning with digital tools.”
The second “presidential memorandum” directs the Secretary of the Interior to “develop a plan to support rural broadband development and adoption by increasing access to tower facilities and other infrastructure assets managed by the Department of the Interior.”
“Those towers are going to go up, and you’re going to have great, great broadband,” Trump told an audience of about 5,000 farmers gathered at the American Farm Bureau Association convention in Nashville, Tenn., where he signed the orders.
But the White House itself described the moves as “incremental” and noted that outside experts have estimated that truly expanding high-speed broadband internet in rural America could cost as much as $80 billion, according to the Washington Post.
And John White, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education, said the new executive orders likely won’t amount to much by themselves.
The orders “don’t adequately address the need for rural broadband,” said White, who now heads a communications firm focused on rural-education issues. “Minor increases in expensive mobile internet access don’t solve the problem and so far, the Administration hasn’t proposed a large enough investment to reach many rural areas that are disconnected and disadvantaged.”
Rural schools, in particular, have faced steep challenges in finding affordable high-speed internet connections. One of the biggest reasons: The combination of difficult, expansive terrain and low-population density make it hard for internet service providers to earn a profit by running expensive fiber-optic cables to hard-to-reach locales.
An overhaul of the federal E-rate program in 2014 included measures to help fund the construction of new fiber-optic lines to rural schools, but applications seeking to take advantage of those rules have frequently been delayed or denied by the Federal Communications Commission under Trump appointee Ajit Pai, who now chairs the commission.
The new executive orders emerged from recommendations made by the federal Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, chaired by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
“To increase access to broadband in rural areas, we must incentivize private capital investment, including the use of public-private partnerships,” Perdue wrote in an op-ed published by CNN. “We must also invest in making high-speed internet infrastructure more attractive by streamlining arduous review, approval, and permitting processes.”
Photo: President Donald Trump displays a signed executive order and a memorandum on rural broadband access at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Annual Convention on Jan. 8, in Nashville, Tenn.--Mark Humphrey/AP
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.