GAO calls for unified broadband strategy

The news: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) interviewed 50 broadband providers and 17 federal agencies and determined that over 100 existing federal broadband programs are “fragmented and overlapping,” per Light Reading.

How we got here: Various broadband initiatives have been approved for funding at a time when a pandemic has amplified the gaps in broadband connectivity. 

  • In January, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it is funding as much as $1.2 billion through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to expand broadband access in 32 states.
  • In March, President Biden released a proposed $5.23 trillion budget for 2023, including $600 million earmarked for additional rural broadband funding.
  • These budgets are independent of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed late last year. That bill budgeted $65 billion for investing in access to reliable, high-speed broadband access and is the largest funding round so far, per The Verge.
  • Reliable internet may add $160 billion per year to the US economy, according to a study conducted by the Aspen Economic Strategy Group (AESG).

Merging a patchwork of programs into a national plan: States and territories are preparing to submit grant requests, and the GAO has interviewed various stakeholders and determined the federal approach is largely ineffective and confusing.

  • “Most of the agency officials and more than half of the nonfederal stakeholders we interviewed said a new national strategy would be helpful,” the GAO’s report said.
  • The GAO identified “at least 133 funding programs that could support increased broadband access—creating a fragmented, overlapping patchwork of funding. This patchwork of programs could lead to wasteful duplication of funding and effort.

Plans for improvement: The organization issued three recommendations for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), identifying limitations to program alignment.

  • A national broadband strategy needs to have “clear roles, goals, objectives, and performance measures.” 
  • The NTIA should incorporate public feedback when updating federal funding guides.
  • The executive office of the president should “develop and implement a national broadband strategy.”

What’s next? Sifting through a hundred grant requests that overlap could add months or even years to disbursement of broadband funds.

  • Creating a unified national strategy could similarly take a long time, but could better address an urgent need to accelerate broadband access.
  • Centralized, need-based national broadband grants make it possible to target specific areas while ensuring there is less redundancy and wasteful expense.
  • It remains to be seen whether the executive branch will heed the GAO’s recommendations or leave it to the federal government to untangle the funding.