WASHINGTON -- When politicians talk about infrastructure, they typically mean the basics: Roads, bridges, ports. The electric grid. Maybe rail, if it's lucky.
But America's top telecom regulator wants the government to expand that thinking by including a type of network that 3 out of 4 Americans use on a daily basis, but doesn't often make it on the politicians' lists: high-speed Internet.
"If Congress moves forward with a major infrastructure package, broadband should be included," said Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a speech Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Pai is proposing an ambitious program whereby the FCC could expand corporate subsidies for building networks while at the same time scaling back regulations that, he said, deter private investment. In addition, Pai is asking that Congress offer tax credits to Internet service providers and entrepreneurs who agree to set up shop in so-called "gigabit opportunity zones" that could be as large as a county or as small as a city block.
"High-speed Internet access, or broadband, is giving rise to what I have called the democratization of entrepreneurship," said Pai, who in the speech identified broadband as a "core component" of U.S. infrastructure. "With a powerful plan and a digital connection, you can raise capital, start a business, immediately reach a worldwide customer base, and disrupt an entire industry."
Thus far, broadband has rarely come up as President Donald Trump has touted a $1 trillion infrastructure proposal. His recent remarks to a joint session of Congress, for example, omitted Internet access from his laundry list of infrastructure priorities. In private meetings with advisers, Trump has inquired about auctioning off airwaves to cellphone carriers, which could help mobile data providers upgrade their networks. But reports of those meetings suggest Trump may have been unaware of recent (and historic) FCC auctions that have done just that.
The White House didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some lawmakers appear committed to including broadband as part of a wider congressional infrastructure bill. Sen. John Thune, the chairman of the powerful Commerce Committee, told reporters recently that he would be open to using FCC funds to encourage the construction of broadband connections where it would otherwise be economically unattractive. And Thune has rolled out his own legislation to shift more airwaves to wireless carriers.
It's unclear whether Pai may have brought up broadband investment in a meeting last week with Trump. But as Pai uses his Pittsburgh appearance to kick off a dayslong tour of middle America, it's clear the FCC intends to get more Americans thinking about broadband as a form of infrastructure just like any other.