As states and territories prepare to submit grant requests to participate in the federal government's multi-billion-dollar effort to close the digital divide, a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) calls on the feds to address considerable overlap between existing programs.
Following a series of interviews with 50 broadband providers, consultants and experts, as well as written interviews with 17 federal agency offices responsible for a broadband-related program, the GAO called the federal approach to broadband "fragmented and overlapping." The office counted over 100 federal broadband programs administered by 15 agencies.
The report acknowledges that in some cases, fragmentation, overlap and duplication of programs is necessary "due to the complex nature or magnitude of the federal effort." But in other instances, it said, having multiple agencies involved creates barriers and service inefficiencies.
"We identified at least 133 funding programs that could support increased broadband access—creating a fragmented, overlapping patchwork of funding. This patchwork of programs could lead to wasteful duplication of funding and effort, and agencies use various approaches to avoid duplicative awards. Agencies also said that some statutory specifics within programs limit the agencies' ability to more effectively align their programs," writes the GAO.
Overall, the GAO issued three recommendations: for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to identify limitations to program alignment and develop legislative proposals where appropriate; for NTIA to incorporate public feedback when updating its federal funding guide; and for the executive office of the president to "develop and implement a national broadband strategy."
According to the GAO, a national broadband strategy should have "clear roles, goals, objectives, and performance measures to support better management of fragmented, overlapping federal broadband programs and synchronize coordination efforts." Such a strategy could also offer legislative proposals to address limitations, it added.
The GAO has called on the president to create a national broadband strategy, adding: "Most of the agency officials and more than half of the nonfederal stakeholders we interviewed said a new national strategy would be helpful."
(Source: Martin Shields/Alamy Stock Photo)
The report further notes that NTIA agreed with the GAO's recommendations but the White House did not take a position.
Biden 'well-positioned' to implement national strategy
The Government Accountability Office issues reports in response to requests from congressional subcommittees. As the GAO indicates in an opening letter, this review of federal programs came in response to Republican senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, including Senators Roger Wicker, Jerry Moran, Marsha Blackburn, Deb Fischer and Ted Cruz, who asked the GAO "to review the range of federal broadband programs and how the federal government coordinates these programs." That request was filed in June 2020, according to a GAO spokesperson.
To an extent, the GAO's findings represent decades of inconsistent, patchwork legislative efforts that broadband stakeholders have sought to address through rules for $65 billion worth of broadband programs in the infrastructure law. Federal agencies including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of the Treasury and NTIA also announced an interagency agreement to share information and collaborate on broadband efforts.
However, the GAO emphasized the need for those efforts to also be guided by a national strategy.
"The Executive Office of the President has not decided if a national strategy is needed, but it is well positioned to develop and implement one," says the report. "Without such a strategy, federal broadband efforts will not be fully coordinated, and thereby continue to risk overlap and duplication of effort."
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.
Ed. note: This story was updated on June 6, 2022, at 2:50 p.m. ET, to include a response from the GAO on the report's origins.