As part of his just-announced "Partnership with Rural Communities," Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer has proposed a massive rural broadband connectivity program that includes $135 billion in investment and "protecting" municipal and co-op broadband networks.
He would also have a net neutrality litmus test for FCC commissioner appointments.
Steyer, who made it to the stage in the most recent televised debate, is currently polling below the needed threshold for the next debate. But that isn't deterring him from tackling the rural investment issue in a big way.
Closing the rural digital divide is an avowed priority of Donald Trump and his FCC chair, Ajit Pai.
In a new video, Steyer says success in the knowledge economy "starts with access to reliable, high-speed internet."
"The modern economy is a knowledge economy," Steyer's plan points out. "Full participation in commerce depends on reliable, fast, affordable access to the Internet. However, 39% of rural residents do not have access to high speed wireless as Internet Service Providers fail to serve rural populations, despite receiving large government subsidies as an incentive."
The FCC distributes over $10 billion in broadband buildout subsidies via its Universal Service Fund, much of it to rural areas.
"We need to alter our approach, break the corporate gridlock, and build these networks," says Steyer in the plan.
Specifically, Steyer would:
1. "Protect the rights of local governments and not-for-profit organizations, including cooperatives, to build their own networks.
2. "Mobilize $135 billion in Rural Utilities Service grants and loans alongside private investment for broadband, fiber and next generation networks. [RUS money is dispensed by the Department of Agriculture, not the FCC].
3. "Target 60% of the $135 billion in new funding to disadvantaged communities, with at least 10% of the funds set aside to improve connectivity on tribal lands and at least 20% of funds directed to minority-majority communities, including Southern communities of color; and require investor-owned ISPs that receive federal grant funds to subsidize service to low-income residents to end the digital divide.
4. "Appoint FCC commissioners who support Net Neutrality."
Steyer's plan did not say where the money was coming from.