GAO calls for cohesive federal strategy to curb fragmented broadband funding

Although there is a bevy of available federal broadband funding, the fragmented landscape is poised to hinder broadband access, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The GAO urged federal agencies to harmonize their funding efforts with a national broadband strategy, with help from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The watchdog also called on the White House develop and implement a national broadband strategy with the help of the National Economic Council (NEC).

“Coordinating agencies need to establish mutually reinforcing or joint strategies to help align activities, processes and resources to achieve a common outcome,” the GAO wrote. It identified at least 133 federal funding programs administered across 15 agencies that could support increased broadband access – creating a fragmented, overlapping patchwork of funding.

The GAO offered two suggestions for NTIA, both of which the latter agreed with. First, NTIA should consult with agencies to identify key statutory limitations that hinder the “beneficial alignment” of broadband programs, in addition to developing legislative proposals as appropriate.

The GAO also suggested NTIA regularly seek and incorporate user feedback when updating its federal funding guide, through NTIA’s Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth (OICG).

Last year, NTIA began to seek user feedback via email. However, NTIA officials told the GAO they received few emails about the guide and didn’t specify what, if any, changes NTIA made as a result of feedback efforts. The report added NTIA’s plans to update its guide “do not include additional opportunities for direct feedback from stakeholders.”

As for its recommendation to the White House, the GAO noted the administration has yet to take a position on its suggestion.

Between 2015 and 2020, the report said federal agencies have invested at least $44 billion in broadband support activities. And there’s even more funding to consider, as NTIA is responsible for allocating around $45 billion, which includes the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program.

Overlapping programs, the GAO said, can lead to the risk of duplicative support, i.e., overbuilding. The agency interviewed a variety of broadband providers, some of whom had differing views on whether overbuilding was wasteful or whether it could provide complementary service to an area.

But the report pointed out it’s difficult to determine the exact extent of duplicative support, “given the number of programs and their varying purposes and eligible recipients.” Programs that target specific populations or geographic locations, for example, reduces some risk of overlapping support.

The federal government has already taken the first steps of collaboration. NTIA in May announced an interagency agreement with the U.S. Department of Treasury, Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agencies said they would work together to share information about certain data and metrics related to broadband deployment.

Also, the GAO noted the NEC in 2021 began leading regular meetings to coordinate the implementation of broadband programs related to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

The GAO further added minimum required broadband deployment speeds vary among programs and continue to change. In 2016 for instance, recipients of USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) Community Connect program were required to deploy broadband speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. That required speed increased to 25/3 Mbps by 2018.

Meanwhile, the FCC’s High Cost Connect America Fund Phase II program, which ran from 2015 through 2020, maintained the 10/1 threshold. And under FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase 1 auction, 25/3 Mbps was the benchmark for areas to be considered unserved and thus eligible for funding.

The report's findings indicate agencies are still figuring out what the standard for broadband service should be. The FCC’s long-anticipated, revamped broadband maps are set to be released sometime this fall, and they may help more precisely allocate broadband funds where they’re needed.