A recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report paints a troubling picture of the U.S. government’s dizzying array of broadband programs. This report states there are over 100 fragmented and overlapping broadband programs administered by 15 federal agencies. Considering the substantial funding Congress recently passed in both COVID-19 related legislation and the $65 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the federal government should take steps to reduce overlap and ensure taxpayer dollars are only being used when and where they are absolutely necessary.
The COVID-19 pandemic elevated the issue of closing the digital divide and bringing unconnected Americans online. As more Americans relied on broadband services for education, health care, and connecting with others, Congress had new impetus to make meaningful progress in closing gaps in accessibility, affordability, and adoption of broadband. In response to this heightened sense of urgency, lawmakers doled out billions of dollars to federal agencies in an attempt to close the digital divide.
However, this huge increase in funding could be, at least in part, wasted. Every dollar siphoned off in duplicative spending or prioritizing unreliable government-owned networks (GONs) risks wasting precious taxpayer dollars and increasing the time it takes to bring the unconnected online. When the right hand doesn’t always know what the 100+ left hands are doing, this creates difficulty and duplication that slows progress on closing the digital divide. For instance, it can create confusion when providers attempt to qualify for grants that are being managed by multiple departments and agencies. This confusing, unsustainable system needs to be addressed.
Specifically, the GAO report identified:
- 25 programs that support broadband as their main purpose are administered by numerous departments and agencies including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Agriculture (USDA), among others;
- 45 programs have broadband access as one possible purpose, including those administered by the Department of Commerce (DOC), Department of Transportation (DOT), and Department of the Treasury (USDT), among others; and
- 63 other programs may be used to support broadband access in an ancillary way, or only under certain circumstances, such as ones administered by the Department of Education (USED).
The GAO report notes that even attempts to provide guidelines, such as the BroadbandUSA Federal Funding Guide published by NTIA, on how to navigate the array of broadband programs have been of limited use. The confusing system the federal government has in place can act as a barrier for participation in federal programs. In interviews with stakeholders, the GAO report found that varying eligibility requirements, definitions, and deadlines can contribute to confusion, and “communities and other applicants with limited resources may be among the most affected by the fragmentation of broadband programs.”
Action is needed by the legislative and executive branches to develop a coherent broadband plan. Fortunately, lawmakers have the opportunity to raise this issue this week, as NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson is appearing in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband for an oversight hearing. Senators on the committee should take this opportunity to raise questions about the troubling issues laid out in this GAO report. The last thing taxpayers want to see is sizable government spending on the digital divide go to waste.