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GAO Report Illustrates Federal Broadband Funding Complexities

Randy Sukow

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Treasury Building

There is an abundance of government grant and loan money available to help rural America build broadband connections to unserved areas. But is the government distributing that money efficiently and will all of those broadband support programs actually close the connectivity gap? A report this week from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “National Strategy Needed to Guide Federal Efforts to Reduce Digital Divide,” (PDF) finds many flaws in the current programs and recommends streamlining them as part of a greater federal broadband strategy.

“Federal broadband efforts are fragmented and overlapping, with more than 100 programs administered by 15 agencies. Many programs have broadband as their main purpose, and several overlap because they can be used for the purpose of broadband deployment,” according to the report GAO completed at the request of Roger F. Wicker (R-MS), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee and four other committee Republicans. “Despite numerous programs and federal investment of $44 billion from 2015 through 2020, millions of Americans still lack broadband, and communities with limited resources may be most affected by fragmentation.”

NRTC started up its Funding Services division last year to help members navigate the dense layers of regulation around the various funding programs. The GAO graphic below demonstrates how many programs the federal government currently administers and how their functions often overlap. Different agencies’ programs have inconsistent eligibility rules, definitions of terms, application procedures and other details. Some of the newer programs distribute funds through state, local and tribal governments, adding even more complexity.

GAO focuses the report on broadband only. Some NRTC members may also be seeking funding through recently passed smart grid support programs. NRTC Funding Services monitors the many programs at state and national levels; alerts members with the latest developments and program deadlines and regularly presents webinars with useful information about specific programs.

The GAO report recommends a number of steps the executive branch and Congress could take to streamline older and newer broadband programs for greater efficiency. In the meantime, NRTC can help members find the programs that fit their needs and guide them through the current process. Contact NRTC Funding Services at funding@nrtc.coop.

Update, June 13: Late last week, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr reacted to the GAO report and called for a more efficient broadband funding distribution process. In a statement (PDF), he said: “Spending hundreds of billions of dollars in an uncoordinated way only adds to the inflationary pressures that are already hitting Americans in their pocketbooks. … Just last week, I participated in a broadband roundtable in South Dakota where providers stated that their costs to construct Internet infrastructure are up nearly 30 percent in light of inflation, rising fuel costs, supply chain challenges, and workforce shortages.”

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