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Biden's telecom platform hardens around net neutrality, universal broadband, 5G funding

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has been slowly firming up his positions on hot-button telecom issues, a noteworthy development in light of polls showing him gaining significant ground on President Trump.

While much can happen between now and November, when the US will hold its presidential election, it's worth taking a look at Biden's latest comments on major telecom topics.

Net neutrality
The most noteworthy development in Biden's telecom platform is his support for net neutrality. As noted by Multichannel News, Biden's new position was rolled out ahead of next month's Democratic National Convention via a joint document issued by Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who Biden beat for the party's nomination.

The document states that the FCC should "take strong enforcement action against broadband providers who violate net neutrality principles through blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, or other measures that create artificial scarcity and raise consumer prices."

That position puts Biden in direct opposition to Trump. One of the first acts by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai – a Trump appointee – was to rescind the agency's net neutrality guidelines established under its previous chairman, an appointee of former President Obama (Biden was Obama's VP).

Interestingly, the Wall Street analysts at New Street Research wrote in a note to investors that the Biden-Sanders document is "not binding on Biden as president" but that it does provide a "useful map" to how a Biden administration could approach such issues.

And the Wall Street analysts at Evercore wrote in a note to investors that Biden would likely appoint Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the FCC's two current Democratic commissioners, to head up the FCC if he is elected president.

Universal broadband
"As millions of Americans have stayed at home to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, it is plain to see that in the 21st century, the Internet is not optional: It is a vital tool for participating in the economy, and all Americans need access to high-speed, affordable broadband service," the Biden-Sanders document argues.

Of course, Biden isn't the first lawmaker to make that argument. "Just as the Great Depression made clear to all that electricity was the 'next greatest thing' in the 20th century, the coronavirus pandemic is making clear to all that broadband is the 'next next greatest thing' in the 21st century," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn in a press release announcing the House Democratic "Plan to Connect All Americans to Affordable Broadband Internet."

As the New Street Research analysts wrote, "this is not a policy proposal but it underlies most of the significant broadband proposals we are likely to see Biden undertake, if elected."

Rural broadband funding
When it comes to actual dollar signs, Biden is promising those too. As Broadband Now noted, Biden announced a $1.3 trillion infrastructure bill last fall that includes $20 billion in funding for rural broadband. And his website claims that this kind of investment could create as many as 250,000 new jobs.

However, it's important to clarify that Biden and Trump don't differ significantly on this topic. Broadband Now reports that Trump sought to allocate $600 million in 2017 for rural infrastructure, and that his FCC is embarking on a $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction later this year. Further, Trump has been rumored to be mulling a $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus proposal that could include rural broadband and 5G components.

Broadband Now also points out that the Trump White House proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill in 2018 – with $50 billion for rural communities – in an effort that "ultimately went nowhere in Congress."

5G funding
Interestingly, in recent days Biden's comments around broadband have also included 5G specifically. Last week he proposed a $300 billion R&D investment program that would cover everything from "electric vehicle technology to lightweight materials to 5G and artificial intelligence."

And John Hendel with Politico said that a new fact sheet from the Biden campaign argues for "expanding broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American."

The New Street analysts speculated that Biden's funding effort may also include a nod toward open RAN.

Finally, the analysts at Evercore wrote that "we wouldn't expect a Democratic administration or Democratic FCC to make dramatic changes to spectrum policy [for 5G]. The focus would remain on making new spectrum available for 5G deployments."

Price regulation
The analysts at New Street Research noted that some investors fear a President Biden presiding over a Democratic-controlled House and Senate because of the potential for policymakers to begin directly regulating service providers' prices.

However, they dismissed that possibility. "We think the risk of price regulation is exceedingly low," they wrote, adding that "the general Democratic view is that the path to affordability is improved subsidies, not price regulation."

Municipal broadband
Broadband Now reported that Trump's re-election campaign has not presented a firm stance on the notion of community-driven broadband. But his FCC did take steps to prevent municipalities from regulating broadband within their respective communities.

That position stands in contrast to the document issued by Biden and Sanders. "Democrats will take action to prevent states from blocking municipalities and rural co-ops from building publicly-owned broadband networks, and increase federal support for municipal broadband," it states.

But the New Street analysts wrote that the entire municipal broadband debate is mostly hypothetical at the presidential level. "As a practical matter, the only way to prevent states from doing so is through congressional action," they noted.

Stacking up against Trump
It's probably fair to say that – given the current pandemic-dominated state of global affairs – telecom issues like municipal broadband and net neutrality won't come up much during the US election season. Thus, it's unclear whether Trump's 2020 telecom agenda will look much different from his agenda from four years ago.

Further, Trump's first term is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to telecom policies. His tax cuts were certainly well received by the likes of AT&T and Verizon, but he hasn't articulated a holistic strategy when it comes to hot-button issues like 5G. Indeed, Trump officially called for the creation of a new national strategy for 5G spectrum by July 2019, but it's still nowhere to be found.

Moreover, it's unclear whether some of Trump's most effective telecom appointees will follow him into a second term. For example, FCC Chairman Pai continues to dodge questions about whether he will remain in his position after November.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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