Trump’s new infrastructure plan allocates $50B to rural area investments, eases small cell deployments

President Donald Trump issued a new $1.5 trillion infrastructure package that his administration claims will help drive rural broadband and ease permitting processes for wireless operators installing small cell infrastructure.

Under the plan, $50 billion would be made available to the Rural Infrastructure Program for capital investments in rural infrastructure investments.

Out of the $50 billion figure, 80% of the funds under the Rural Infrastructure Program would be provided to the governor of each State via formula distribution. Each state governor, who will consult with designated Federal agency and State directors of rural development, would be able to choose individual investments to respond to their unique rural needs.

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 A portion of the Rural Infrastructure Program funds would be set aside for Tribal infrastructure and territorial infrastructure, with the remainder available for states. 

This latest action follows two presidential orders Trump signed in January that, at the time, he said would enhance rural broadband coverage and availability.

The first of these two orders instructed the Department of Interior to dedicate a portion of its assets for rural broadband installation. The second order will streamline the network installation process by requiring agencies to use standardized forms and contracts for installing antennas on federal buildings.

Easing small cell deployments

As part of Trump’s infrastructure plan, the Trump administration has called to expedite the permitting process for wireless operators to install small cells and other related network equipment to deliver 5G wireless services.

The plan calls to accelerate the small telecom equipment permitting process in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act. 

Under the current law, wireless operators that want to deploy small cells and Wi-Fi attachments must comply with both NEPA and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) similar to how they obtain permits for large towers.

“Small cells and Wi-Fi attachments do not have an environmental footprint, nor do they disturb the environment or historic property,” said the Trump administration in its proposed plan. “However, despite this lack of impact, small cells and Wi-Fi attachments typically go through the same level of analysis and review under NEPA and the NHPA, which needlessly adds both delays and costs to the process.”

By amending the law to expedite small cells and Wi-Fi attachments in NEPA and NHPA, the administration said it would eliminate unnecessary reviews without adversely affecting the environment.

Trump’s proposal to streamline the small cell permitting process was met with praise by the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), a group that’s largely in favor of deregulation.

“Amending the law will clear the way for rapid deployments of small cell equipment, which will enable wireless speeds of up to 100 times faster than today,” IIA said in a statement. “Along with the earlier actions to promote deployment of broadband infrastructure on federal property, the Administration has taken a strong step forward to encourage the billions of dollars in new private investment that will make 5G a reality for Americans.”

Alternatively, Genny Morelli, President of ITTA, said in a statement that while its organization agrees that easing the small cell permitting is positive, it does not go far enough to enhance rural broadband.

“While ITTA recognizes that streamlining the federal permitting process for broadband projects on federal lands is needed and represents a good start, it will not move the needle substantially for those millions of rural American consumers waiting for broadband speeds that will ensure connectivity for years to come,” Morelli said.

Proposal draws mixed reception

Trump’s latest budget proposal and its focus on driving broadband into more rural areas is, not surprisingly, drawing an overall mixed reception amongst industry groups and regulators.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has been an advocate for relaxing regulation since taking the helm last year, said that Trump's plan will enable more service providers to increase network investments.

Ajit Pai (FCC)
Ajit Pai

“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,” Pai said. “That’s why this plan is a welcome and strong call to action. 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.”

NTCA, an organization focused on rural service providers, also came out in support of the plan.

“There is clear bipartisan consensus that broadband is the key infrastructure challenge of the 21st Century—and in rural America where the business case for broadband investment and ongoing operations can be daunting at best, solving that challenge will without question require a greater commitment of resources,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA. “NTCA is eager to work with the administration and Congress to develop further how such funding can be made available and most effectively utilized, whether by leveraging existing programs with proven track records or ensuring at least careful coordination with such programs to promote and sustain the business case for rural broadband.”

However, other groups like ITTA and WISPA, remain skeptical about Trump’s plan.

Genny Morelli

“ITTA has been a longstanding proponent of any federal infrastructure plan that includes set aside funding for much-needed broadband deployment to rural America,” ITTA’s Morelli said. “Unfortunately, the Trump Administration’s 'Building a Stronger America' infrastructure initiative officially announced today misses the mark. It represents a lost opportunity to help close the digital gap and connect millions of unserved and underserved Americans to the global online economy.”  

WISPA, while supportive of ideas to close the proverbial rural broadband gap, said the organization is concerned that the funding could be used to fund large carrier efforts.

However, the group cautioned that any new federal support for rural broadband should not be used to subsidize large broadband carriers to compete against smaller ones, as has happened all too often in the past.

Chuck Hogg

“We encourage the Trump administration and the Congress to take a new approach and not focus primarily on subsidies as the policy response,” said Chuck Hogg, chairman of WISPA. “All too often, subsidies tend to reinforce the dominance of larger carriers and non-cost-effective technologies. Any new subsidies must be distributed in a way that is technology-neutral, cost-effective, performance-based, and accessible to smaller providers.”