GAO Report Reveals Significant Duplication and Overlap in Broadband Programs | Citizens Against Government Waste

GAO Report Reveals Significant Duplication and Overlap in Broadband Programs

The WasteWatcher

According to Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, as much as $800 billion has been made available by the federal government for broadband deployment, which is 10 times more than the $80 billion that he said is needed to connect everyone across the country who is unserved.  More than half of that money has been provided in the past 15 months through the American Rescue Plan Act, which allocated $350 billion for state and local governments with sufficient flexibility that it could all be used for broadband, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which included $65 billion solely for broadband deployment. 

While there is widespread agreement that connecting businesses, families, and students to the internet is important, the massive amount of money is being distributed through a fragmented and overlapping system of 15 federal agencies that are responsible for at least 133 broadband funding programs.  These programs were detailed in a May 2022 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which noted that despite “numerous programs and federal investment [of] $44 billion from 2015 to 2020, millions of Americans still lack broadband, and communities with limited resources may be most affected by fragmentation.”  In other words, broadband programs are like other federal programs.  Rather than reducing duplication and overlap and determining which programs can best achieve an objective, Congress just spends more money without caring if the objectives of the programs are being achieved.

The GAO noted that three agencies with “significant roles” in broadband funding are the Department of Agriculture, Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).  Broadband programs are also provided through the Appalachian Regional Commission, Delta Regional Authority, Denali Commission, Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, Northern Border Regional Commission, and the Departments of Commerce, Education, Interior, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Treasury.  This means more than half of the 15 federal departments have some responsibility for broadband funds.

For rural broadband programs, which are among those most strongly associated with closing the digital divide, the FCC’s High Cost program “targets financial support to rural and high-cost areas for the deployment, operation, and maintenance of voice and broadband capable networks,” while the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) also funds rural broadband infrastructure projects.  The GAO cited one broadband provider that received funding through the High Cost program in 2015, and in 2016, the RUS awarded money to a separate provider to expand broadband access to an overlapping area.

The GAO noted that without careful coordination, the agencies funding broadband programs risk negatively affecting “outcomes, program implementation, and cost-effectiveness.”  The results of this lack of coordination include inaccurate progress measurements, a failure to provide broadband access to targeted communities, and a reduction of benefits.  The GAO recommended that agencies improve communication and coordination “to establish mutually reinforcing or joint strategies to help align activities, processes, and resources to achieve a common outcome.”

The potential for wasteful spending on the unprecedented amount of broadband funds is enormous.  The Obama-Biden stimulus package provided $7.2 billion for broadband: $4.7 billion for NTIA and $2.5 billion for the RUS.  There were many examples of wasteful spending, as cited in a November 12, 2021, CAGW blog post.  The IIJA alone includes nearly 10 times the amount of money allocated by the stimulus bill. 

The GAO report notes that aligning broadband programs to achieve a common objective requires Congress to make changes to existing law.  While there has been “a variety of mechanisms for coordination,” GAO said, “no current national strategy exists to provide clear roles, goals, objectives, and accountability to agencies or synchronize the numerous interagency coordination efforts.”  The FCC’s March 17, 2010, National Broadband Plan is now outdated, and there is nothing of that scope to replace it at this time.  Several agency officials suggested that a national strategy should come from the Executive Office of the President, but there is no evidence that is going to be done. 

The GAO’s recommendation for federal agencies and Congress to reduce overlap, duplication and fragmentation would help to bridge the digital divide and provide broadband access to those who are currently unserved.  If this does not occur, taxpayers can expect to see more reports from GAO and taxpayer watchdogs like CAGW on how their money is being squandered on broadband programs.