How Trump’s FCC Can Help Rural America

By | 2017-11-04T10:34:00+00:00 November 4th, 2017|
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When Donald Trump won a surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election, he did so mainly because rural counties voted overwhelmingly in favor of the real change he promised. Voters in Livingston County in New York, where I live, gave Mitt Romney a 10-point victory in 2012—but it gave Trump a whopping 28-point victory in 2016. Rural Americans turned out for Trump-Pence in droves. This is why a county-by-county map of the election results paints an America that is virtually solid red, with only a few small islands of stubborn blue where urban liberals bucked the nationwide trend.

One reason for Trump’s popularity among rural Americans is his consistent emphasis on bringing economic opportunity to people long ago forgotten by our country’s globalized elites.

It is no secret that the steady loss of factory jobs to nations like China and Mexico has been killing many communities across the United States. Often, those job losses hurt the most in small towns and rural areas, where the departure of a single major employer can mean the difference between prosperity and destitution—and not just for those directly employed by that employer. Many of the smaller operations that grow up around the larger employer, offering support services and jobs, tend to go away as well. When bad times befall rural Americans, moreover, they often have great difficulty in pivoting to take advantage of new economic opportunities. Why? Partly because educational institutions, internships, apprenticeships, and job training programs concentrate in cities and suburbs. Not only are people in the countryside cut off from access to the kinds of opportunities urban elites enjoy, but they are also cut off from the tools to improve their skills and make connections with potential employers.

Recently, an exciting new proposal has surfaced that may allow the Trump administration, and specifically the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to turn this depressing situation around. This solution would use existing communications infrastructure to expand horizons for rural Americans in a way that wouldn’t cost taxpayers a penny. Given the economic desolation confronting so much of “Trump country,” this is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.

In simple terms, the idea would be to use broadcast frequencies currently dedicated to television programming to bring broadband internet access to rural America.

In today’s economy, access to broadband internet is increasingly crucial for anyone wanting to connect with employers and gain valuable new skills. More than 20 million rural Americans, however, lack broadband internet access, mainly because of the logistical and technical challenge of offering it to people living in remote locations. Virtually the entire nation, however, is already connected to the broadcast frequency infrastructure in question. It could be repurposed to serve this need rather than television broadcasts. Moreover, many of these frequencies are unused, and the provision of broadband internet to millions of forgotten Americans would require only three, 600 MHz-range channels in each market (less than 10 percent of the total number) to be reassigned this noble purpose.

Individual consumers wouldn’t be alone in gaining connectivity, either. Farms and health care providers would benefit too, boosting agricultural potential and saving lives. Nonetheless, television broadcasters are opposing this move, because they refuse to share even the frequencies they aren’t using with any other industry.

What we have here is a classic case of outdated federal regulations impeding economic progress. “Economic progress,” though, hardly seems like a strong enough term, when the very survival of many rural communities is at stake. These are the areas where the opioid epidemic, deindustrialization, depopulation, and other crises, are deeply entrenched. We should do everything in our power to help these communities.

In this case, however, the federal government doesn’t have to do anything. The feds wouldn’t have to spend any money, either. They merely need to get out of the way, stop protecting the narrow interests of the television industry, and allow the marketplace to operate freely to fill the need for broadband internet access all across America.

The dedication of the Trump Administration to extirpating unnecessary and burdensome regulation to date has been marvelous to behold, and the reaction of the stock market to President Trump’s pro-business policies speaks for itself. The Trump boom, however, cannot and should not affect only those who happen to own stocks. The forgotten millions in rural America voted for Donald Trump because they expected a genuine change in economic policies to favor “the little guy” and to protect and multiply American jobs. By updating current FCC policies on broadcast frequencies, the Trump Administration could deliver on this promise in a way that would help lift up rural America.

As President Trump said on Election Night: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Now is the time to translate words into deeds, and to provide rural Americans with the educational and economic opportunities that so many of us already take for granted.

About the Author:

Nicholas L. Waddy
Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.