The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found in a recent report that the Biden administration ignored its recommendations last year to create a national broadband strategy to synchronize the fragmented patchwork of funding for broadband. This critical mistake puts billions of tax dollars at risk and hurts efforts to close the digital divide.
The GAO has noted now in two consecutive annual reports that there is extreme overlap in broadband funding programs, with 133 such programs administrated by 15 agencies. The complexities have only grown in recent years with the addition of such programs as Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) and Enabling Middle Mile Infrastructure.
The office pointed out that the number of programs and their overlap can lead to taxpayer waste, but such waste is hard to measure.
“Having numerous broadband programs can be helpful to address a multifaceted issue like broadband access, but this fragmentation and overlap can lead to the risk of duplicative support,” the GAO said in the report. “However, determining whether program overlap results in duplicative support can be challenging.”
The GAO did, however, identify situations in which waste could occur. For example, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) High Cost program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service (RUS) programs had overlapping service areas. Officials from the FCC and RUS acknowledged the challenges of the overlap, but told federal auditors they don’t consider awards duplicative if they involve different levels of service and support different locations within the area.
RUS’s ReConnect program rules allow overlap with other award areas if the area lacked speeds considered sufficient under the new program’s rules and the previous award recipient wasn’t required to offer the higher speeds. Recent funding for ReConnect explicitly allows overlap with the High Cost program if the project meets certain conditions.
The report further states that stakeholders say that “administrative complexities” and “programmatic differences” limit agencies’ ability to better coordinate these funding programs. GAO notes this will become even more problematic as the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) begins distributing more than $42 billion from the BEAD program. Since states and local territories will administer this money, it will be even more difficult to track waste.
Federal auditors said NTIA officials told them they were limited in trying to align new broadband programs in terms of eligible areas, populations, and broadband speeds due to statutory provisions among the programs.
“Without identifying the key areas where statutory provisions limit beneficial program alignment — and developing legislative proposals as appropriate — Congress may lack insight into potential beneficial legislative changes and agencies may continue to face challenges in collaborating to help people access broadband,” the report said.
The document also noted that determining eligible programs and completing applications can be challenging for applicants from smaller communities, tribal communities, or companies that lack in-house expertise or resources to hire consultants for assistance.
Eliminating waste ought to be a priority given that taxpayers are shelling out tens of billions of dollars for broadband deployment and President Joe Biden has made a goal of universal broadband access by 2030. But, according to the GAO, his administration hasn’t developed a national coordination strategy “with clear roles, goals, objectives, and performance measures.”
“Greater direction through a national strategy led by the executive office of the president could guide agencies in working more collaboratively to close the digital divide, across the country and on tribal lands,” the GAO said. “Without a strategy, federal broadband efforts will continue to not be fully coordinated, and thereby continue to risk unwanted overlap and duplication of effort.”
Hopefully, the Biden administration will take heed of the latest GAO report. With unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money going into the broadband infrastructure effort, it’s paramount that as little of it is wasted as possible.
Johnny Kampis is director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.