Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Senators Thune, Luján Urge GAO to Revisit Broadband Funding

In a letter dated April 24, Senators John Thune (R – SD), ranking member of the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, and Ben Ray Luján (D – NM), subcommittee chairman, request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) "conduct an additional review of federal, state, and local broadband efforts to determine the effectiveness of each program."

In a recent post to the FSF Blog describing an effort led by Senator Thune to compel the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to align with statutory intent its rules for the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, I pointed out that in prerecorded remarks delivered to the Free State Foundation's Fifteenth Annual Policy Conference, he cited a May 2022 GAO report cautioning that "there are more than 130 federal broadband programs that are administered by 15 federal agencies."

As I noted in a June 2022 post to the FSF Blog, the GAO concluded that "[t]his patchwork of programs could lead to wasteful duplication of funding and effort" and therefore recommended that the "Executive Office of the President … should develop and implement a national broadband strategy with clear roles, goals, objectives, and performance measures."

To date, no such national broadband strategy has emerged. Fortunately, however, Senator Thune's ongoing broadband funding oversight activities maintain a bright spotlight on this multi-agency, multi-program recipe for duplication, waste, fraud, and abuse.

For instance, his December 2022 oversight letter, to which FSF President Randolph J. May helpfully provided a comprehensive response, brought focused attention to the GAO report's findings. Yesterday's letter to the Honorable Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States, treads a similar path.

Specifically, Senators Thune and Luján request that the GAO investigate a number of topics, including:

  • Whether each of the 133 (and counting) federal subsidy programs "were … established in line with Congress' directive on the funding's intended purpose";
  • The "statutory basis" for each program;
  • The extent to which these programs have met their "specific policy goals";
  • The frequency with which – and how – "federal programs' funding [has] overlapped other federal programs";
  • The effect of "the fragmented and overlapping approach the federal government [has] taken" on the ability of these programs to accomplish their intended goals;
  • Whether the goals set forth in the May 2022 Memorandum of Understanding between the FCC, Department of Agriculture, NTIA, and Treasury Department have been achieved; and
  • The extent to which "federal agencies [have] coordinated their broadband programs with state and local broadband funding programs."

As the letter rightly concludes, "[a]ddressing weaknesses in each of these broadband programs will help ensure more Americans are connected to reliable broadband services."