The leaders of digital inclusion non-profits are scrambling to figure out what exactly they’ll be facing under a Trump presidency.
By Rick Paulas
Back in June, I examined the differences between the Internet policies of the two presidential candidates. It went something like this: Hillary Clinton would continue many of the efforts from the Obama administration, with slight alterations to account for new technology, such as the shift from 4G to 5G networks. Clinton’s ultimate goal was to get 100 percent of Americans access to broadband Internet by 2020.
Donald Trump’s plan for Internet expansion could be summed up as:
Now that he’s won the election and the transition has begun, the direction of United States policy on digital inequality — as well as many other areas of national policy — is still something along the lines of the above. As a result, those working in the sector are continuing their normal day-to-day operations without much awareness of what’s to come in 2017.
“The only conversations I am having are speculative,” says Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a non-profit that bridges the gap between policymakers and the public. “I wish I were discussing more substance. Clarification would be lovely. We have zero clarification.”
As head of the NDIA, Siefer communicated to its affiliates, in an email, that no one quite knows the Trump administration’s position regarding digital inclusion. They’re currently reaching out to the transition team, but haven’t received an answer yet.
The email does, however, note that Trump’s team did once reference broadband Internet during the campaign, meaning, Siefer writes, that “one opportunity might be to integrate digital inclusion in a federal infrastructure initiative.” Beyond that, it’s reading tea leaves, with a broad sense that a GOP-led Congress may place the burden more heavily on the shoulders of local governments. But again, this is all speculative.
“Trump didn’t talk about it much during his campaign,” says Chike Aguh, CEO of EveryoneOn, a national non-profit. “We don’t know really what his policies are. We’ve seen a few personnel appointments, but, frankly, we don’t know what they mean. I have seen nothing. If you find anyone who has, let me know.”
Aguh splits his reaction into three categories, pointing out good things that have happened under the Obama administration (the modernization of the Lifeline subsidy, net neutrality), things that he’s confident will continue no matter what (working with governors and mayors to enact change from the bottom-up), and things he hopes don’t happen under the Trump administration. “I hope things like net neutrality and the Lifeline reform are not in peril,” Aguh says. “Without Lifeline, there are 40 million families whose kids are not able to do homework at home, 40 million who can’t apply for jobs or college.”
Aguh is also hoping the Federal Communications Commission continues to force the hands of telecommunication companies whenever it’s trying to close mergers so that the companies must provide services to the poor and underserved. “If someone is going to increase their market power, they have to increase their digital conclusion,” he says. “That’s par for the course. You should not be able to have one without the other.” No one is sure of Trump’s stance on this.
Why would anyone want to get in the way of getting more people online?
Aguh goes through a litany of reasons he has heard over the years. There are those who say there is no demand, and that the time and money and effort is ultimately a waste. Some are concerned about the fraud and abuse associated with any government program, and then there are those with an ideological opposition to the government doing anything for its citizens.
Mainly, Aguh hopes the new administration doesn’t get in the way. “I am hoping D.C. does not make rules to hamstring governments that will prohibit them from doing work to close the digital divide,” he says. “I hope that the hard-won gains over the last eight years are not suddenly erased by this new Trump administration.”
Judging by the first few weeks of the transition and other areas of urgent concern, perhaps the digital divide is low enough on the to-do list to be ignored for the time being. After all, dismantling policies usually takes almost as much time and effort as constructing new ones.