Senate Hearing Must Focus on Avoiding Duplicative Middle Mile Broadband Funding | Citizens Against Government Waste

Senate Hearing Must Focus on Avoiding Duplicative Middle Mile Broadband Funding

The WasteWatcher

There has long been bipartisan support for deploying broadband across the country to ensure that every American has access to the internet for work, school, social contact, and everything else that can be done online.  The need for such access became acute immediately after the onset of COVID-19 led to the shutdown of factories, offices, schools, stores, and other facilities.  While there were many programs already in place to expand broadband deployment, Congress nonetheless approved tens of billions of dollars more over the past two years both under COVID “relief” bills and a major infrastructure bill.

According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr, there is more than $800 billion available for broadband deployment, which is more than enough to connect every household in the country if it is used effectively and efficiently.  But a May 31, 2022, Government Accountability Office (GAO) report which found that there are at least 133 broadband funding programs across a fragmented and overlapping system of 15 agencies noted that despite $44 billion in federal investment between 2015-2020, “millions of Americans still lack broadband, and communities with limited resources may be most affected by fragmentation.”  These findings make it clear that Congress should be exercising its oversight powers on these programs.

That is why Citizens Against Government Waste welcomes the December 13, 2022,  Senate Commerce, Transportation and Science Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband hearing on “Ensuring Solutions to Meet America’s Broadband Needs.”  The intent of the hearing is to “examine ongoing and past efforts within the public and private sectors to bring affordable, resilient, and secure broadband to all communities.”  The committee members should make sure their review includes a close examination of middle mile funding.

In just the past two years, Congress has provided up to $430 billion for federal broadband investment, or more than half of the $800 billion cited by Commissioner Carr.  The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), provided $65 billion to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to enable unserved communities to connect to the internet, including $1 billion for the NTIA”s Middle Mile Grant Program, and $47 billion for the Broadband Equity accessibility and Deployment (BEAD) program.  The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provided $350 billion for state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to use for infrastructure improvements, some, or all of which can be used for broadband infrastructure.  But even before the IIJA was enacted, several states, like Vermont, had already allocated sufficient ARPA funds to connect unserved households in their states.

With the massive amount of funding available to deploy broadband in up to 133 programs across 15 federal agencies, it is critical that Congress conduct stringent oversight of each of these programs so that taxpayer resources are not squandered on duplicative broadband deployments or used to build networks that remain dark because the last mile is never connected.  Given the focus on spending federal dollars on middle mile deployment, the opportunity for wasteful spending is increased through the funding of government-owned networks that run alongside existing private networks, or middle mile networks being built, but without means to connect the last mile. 

There are some members of Congress who are keenly interested in holding agencies’ feet to the fire when it comes to spending broadband dollars.  On December 8, 2022, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband Ranking Member John Thune (R-S.D.) and full Committee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) sent a letter to the inspector general of the Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson asking her to review grants issued through the NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, and “make recommendations to address any waste, fraud or abuse with respect to these grants” and citing the department’s failure to issue the reports on the $1.5 million already allocated for these programs that were due on May 16, 2022, and November 16, 2022.   Along with the December 13 hearing, this is a good step toward greater oversight of broadband funding programs. 

The committee hearing should review not only the problems caused by the duplicative and overlapping programs identified by GAO, but also problems of Congress’s own making due to conflicting statutory requirements.  They have led to inconsistent guidance across federal agencies (other than the FCC) for broadband program spending, including speed thresholds and vendor and technology preferences. 

For example, the Rural Utilities Service Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) evaluation criteria for Round 3 of the Rural eConnectivity Program (ReConnect) in October 2021 included preferences for governmental or quasi-governmental entities and entities who agree to unrelated policy requirements like net neutrality.  The Department of Treasury’s January 2022 guidance for states and local governments for the $350 billion in ARPA allocated for infrastructure improvements sets preferences for fiber and either government-owned or nonprofit broadband networks.  The NTIA’s Notice of Funding Opportunity for the $42.45 billion in funding the agency received in the IIJA included guidance encouraging symmetrical 100/100 Mbps speed thresholds for new infrastructure deployment, that while is not a binding requirement provides incentives for state and local governments to use this as a benchmark for new deployments that may reduce the amount of funding available for unserved communities as efforts are made to bring existing broadband networks “up to speed.”

CAGW has long maintained that the most efficient and effective way to provide broadband access is to be technology and vendor neutral, which means cable, fiber, mobile broadband, satellite, and wireless broadband using TV white space and other unlicensed spectrum should all eligible for funding opportunities across all federal agencies and programs.  There should also not be any “future-proof” symmetrical 100/100 Mbps download, as the Biden administration has repeatedly suggested and sometimes required, which essentially would limit the technology to fiber in the ground. 

Ensuring that taxpayer resources that have already been allocated and will be provided in the future for broadband deployment are being spent in a manner that will provide access to unserved communities and household without being wasted on duplicative middle mile funding should be a primary focus for Congress and a prime subject of the December 13 Senate Commerce Committee hearing.