Monday, June 12, 2023

GAO Reiterates Broadband Funding Coordination Concerns

On May 10, 2023, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released "Broadband: A National Strategy Needed to Coordinate Fragmented, Overlapping Federal Programs," a Statement addressing the status of federal broadband subsidy efforts. It echoes the findings set forth in a May 2022 GAO Report that I summarized in a post to the FSF Blog – and that Senator John Thune (R-SD) underscored in prerecorded remarks delivered to the Free State Foundation's Fifteenth Annual Policy Conference on March 28, 2023.

Troublingly, it also indicates that little has changed over the past twelve months.

As Senator Thune noted, the May 2022 GAO Report concluded that "there are more than 130 federal broadband programs that are administered by 15 federal agencies" – a scenario he characterized as a "spiderweb of bureaucracy." The Statement, meanwhile, focuses on a subset of that total: the 25 programs whose "main purpose" is broadband, 13 of which "overlap because they can each be used for the purpose of broadband deployment," as illustrated in the chart reproduced below.

The Mosaic of 25 Federal Programs with Broadband as a Main Purpose,
as of November 2021, by Purpose Category

Continuing, the Report expressed concern that "[t]his patchwork of programs could lead to wasteful duplication of funding and effort." It therefore made the following recommendations:

  • That the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), in consultation with other relevant agencies, "present to Congress a report that identifies the key statutory provisions that limit the beneficial alignment of broadband programs and offers legislative proposals to address the limitations, as appropriate."
  • That the "Executive Office of the President … develop and implement a national broadband strategy with clear roles, goals, objectives, and performance measures to support better management of fragmented, overlapping federal broadband programs and synchronize coordination efforts."

The publication of the Statement coincided with the appearance of Andrew Von Ah, GAO's Director, Physical Infrastructure, at a hearing held the same day by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee entitled "Closing the Digital Divide: Overseeing Federal Funds for Broadband Deployment." (Indeed, it served as his official witness testimony.)

In terms of updates, the Statement reveals that little concrete progress on those recommendations has been made over the last year:

  • NTIA's report to Congress remains in the planning stage – and is not expected until May 31, 2026.
  • In May 2022, "the Executive Office of the President was considering if a national strategy was needed. As of this testimony, it has not developed a national strategy for broadband."

As I illustrated in "Wasteful Duplication by Design: A Case Study on Overlapping Federal Broadband Subsidies," a recent Perspectives from FSF Scholars, the status quo unacceptably – and seemingly intentionally – opens the door to redundant grants from multiple sources and the overbuilding of privately funded networks.

GAO once again has raised the alarm and proposed solutions. It is high time that the Biden Administration and Congress respond with meaningful coordinating measures.