Issues & Insights

Federal Auditor Says Bureaucracy Is Harming Efforts To Close Digital Divide

A Government Accountability Office report says that federal broadband funding is a jumbled mess and it’s unclear if the Biden White House plans to do anything about it.

GAO says in the report that a better national strategy is needed to guide federal efforts to help close the digital divide.

How fragmented is the current effort? The federal auditor found that 15 agencies currently administer more than 100 different broadband funding programs. Some of those programs primarily focus on broadband deployment while other programs provide funding that can be used for multiple purposes, including offering internet devices, making service more affordable and building digital skills.

The GAO report indicates that the billions of taxpayer dollars already spent on broadband haven’t been very effective. “Despite numerous programs and federal investment [of] $44 billion from 2015 through 2020, millions of Americans still lack broadband, and communities with limited resources may be most affected by fragmentation.”

In other words, many unserved areas continue to be unserved thanks to the federal bureaucracy.

Those bureaucrats tell GAO that “programmatic differences” limit their ability to align programs. Some of this is due to current law, and some is not, they say.

Jeffrey Westling, director of technology and innovation policy at the American Action Forum, recently wrote about the various new programs that were created after the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for better internet access at home. Congress has allocated billions more on top of the billions already dispersed, which makes the need for better coordination all the more urgent.

“We have so much money going out the door and yet the problem persists because regulators do not have a unified approach or even a common vision for distributing the funds; there are still millions of Americans without broadband and it will stay that way if our support mechanisms don’t work in unison to get these folks connected,” Westling told the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

The Trump administration also did little to fix this problem. GAO says that in 2018, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is responsible for coordinating telecom issues across the executive branch, led an interagency group that reviewed program definitions. But NTIA didn’t identify which statutory provisions limit program alignment. The agency also didn’t recommend any changes.

“Improved alignment is needed to help address fragmentation and overlap,” the report says. “Without legislative proposals for Congress to consider, agencies may continue to face limitation in aligning programs to close the digital divide.”

GAO says American broadband efforts lack a clear national strategy. Even though the Executive Office of the President took the lead for coordinating broadband programs after President Joe Biden took office in 2021, that office “has not decided if a national strategy is needed,” GAO reports.

This is all despite Biden setting a goal for universal broadband access in the U.S. by 2030.

GAO recommends that NTIA identify the statutory limitations for program alignment and develop legislative proposals to end those limitations, and that the Executive Office of the President develop and implement a national broadband strategy. The report notes that NTIA is on board with its recommendation, but the presidential office “did not take a position on our recommendation.”

If Biden is intent on getting every American connected to broadband within the next decade, he should heed the call from the GAO to ensure that both the digital divide is closed and that less taxpayer money is squandered on superfluous, unaligned programs across his administration.

Johnny Kampis is director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.    

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