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Watchdog Report Calls for National Broadband Strategy to Reduce Broadband Fund Inefficiencies

The GAO report found many different federal broadband programs prone to inefficiencies.

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Photo of Mark Warner, D-VA

WASHINGTON, June 7, 2022 – The Government Accountability Office has called for the federal government to address the considerable overlap among over 100 different funding programs overseen by 15 separate agencies for broadband builds that it said in a report released last week could cause service “inefficiencies.”

The GAO indicated that the various grant programs had fragmentation, referring to circumstances where more than one agency was involved in the same broad area of need; overlap, occurring when multiple agencies have similar goals; and duplication, when multiple agencies have the same goal and activities.

The report recommends that the National Economic Council 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.”

While some fragmentation and overlap is necessary to complement existing programs, said the report, other cases where multiple agencies are involved “can create barriers for program applicants or inefficiencies in service delivery.”

The report highlighted an overall concern that federal programs are a patchwork of grants that is unorganized and ineffective. “Overlap and duplication [can sometimes] occur because of incremental addition of programs over time to respond to new needs and challenges, without a strategy to coordinate efforts and effectively manage them.”

Lags between application and deployment times across different programs also present opportunity for duplication, the report said. The GAO warned that this can negatively affect program outcomes, implementation and cost-effectiveness.

Current efforts

The NEC leads regular broadband coordination meetings with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that focus on avoiding duplication with other federal agencies. The executive leadership team of the American Broadband Initiative, an interagency working group,  was established to address individual agency actions and serve as an information-sharing venue.

Furthermore, the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act includes a new interagency coordination provision that requires the NTIA to coordinate with other agencies when implementing new programs or mapping efforts. It will be expected to establish program definitions and determine how funds complement other programs.

To that end, the GAO also calls for the NTIA to identify the statutory limitations preventing program alignment.

The GAO report said that “implementation of these requirements is still forthcoming and NTIA is assessing the new coordination requirements.”

The IIJA does not require the NTIA or any other federal agency to develop a national broadband strategy.

Agencies are not unaware of this issue. Many are working to coordinate with other programs to reduce duplication but claim that “some statutory specifics within programs limit the agencies’ ability to more effectively align their programs,” the reports said.

“Some stakeholders,” continued the report, “said it can be challenging to use programs together to boost overall broadband access, often because programs are targeted to specific needs or have certain restrictions.”

The NTIA’s Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth is developing a 2022 internal workplan for interagency coordination but it will “not be a strategy for the office as a whole.” This comes a decade after its outdated 2010 national broadband plan.

Spectrum

Agency Leaders Urge Improvements to Spectrum Management

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel advocated for bills that would make better use of spectrum.

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Photo of Matthew Pearl of the FCC, Derek Khlopin of the NTIA, Anna Gomez of Wiley Rein LLP (left to right)

WASHINGTON, June 23, 2023 – Agency leaders at speaking at a Public Knowledge conference Thursday said more needs to be done to bring spectrum management up to speed, as a issues outlined by a decades-old task force report are still pertinent today.

Receiver standards continue to prohibit innovation, barriers remain for a national spectrum strategy, and spectrum frequencies are becoming more crowded and valuable, said panelists at the event, pointing to challenges outlined by the 2002 Spectrum Policy Task Force.

“[The task force recommendations] were spot on but they also identified a lot of persistent challenges that remain today,” said Derek Khlopin of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. “I don’t think that it means we haven’t made progress.”

Technology, use cases, and standards will constantly evolve, added Matthew Pearl of the FCC. “We need to constantly assess them and be very nimble while at the same time honoring the principles like flexibility to all users.”

Suggested steps for improvement

Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, speaking at the event, suggested three areas of improvement for spectrum innovation.

First, she advocated for the Spectrum Innovation Act, a bill introduced to the House in September and awaiting committee approval that would make available new airwaves for commercial wireless broadband.

Second, Rosenworcel suggested that the FCC update the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act, which encourages federal users to clear spectrum by establishing a spectrum relocation fund to reimburse agencies operating on airways that are allocated for commercial use.

She also suggested that federal relocators can be given a broader range of options to update their capabilities when they relocate. These changes could “help avoid spectrum disputes and smooth the way for reallocation of airways.”

Third, “we should explore receiver performance.” The efficient use of our airways is a two-way effort and low quality receivers will make it difficult to introduce new services in the same frequencies. The FCC recently launched a new inquiry on receiver performance.

These suggestions come a week after a House subcommittee on communications and technology advanced two bills for floor votes that would provide the NTIA with resources to develop “innovative spectrum management technologies.”

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Funding

Researching the Impact of Digital Equity Funding Starts With Community Collaboration

Understanding the funding impact will ‘begin with the NTIA’s mandate to work with community partners.’

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Photo of Fallon Wilson

CLEVELAND, June 23, 2022 – Formulating research questions and making data readily accessible will contribute to the impact of federal and state digital equity funding, said experts speaking at the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Summit Wednesday.

It is essential to “formulate the research questions with communities” so that researchers will understand what is of interest and importance to the residents and local leaders, said Nicole Marwell from the University of Chicago,

Marwell said it is “critical” for researchers to consider how to “ask questions that bring answers that are more relevant for the community partners and then for [researchers] to try and figure out a way to make that interesting for a research audience.”

“We can demystify research,” said Fallon Wilson of the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, speaking on how researchers can effectively work with community members. When data looks friendly to local leaders, they can go directly to their state broadband offices and advocate for their specific needs in specific areas.

“The best advocates are the people who advocate for themselves,” said Wilson.

Our role as researchers can play is to make data digestible for the non-academic, said Hernan Galperin of the University of Southern California.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration requires states to work with community leaders and partners for the funds distributed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Wilson praised this mandate, saying that understanding the funding impact will “begin with the NTIA’s mandate to work with community partners.”

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Fiber

Google Fiber Says it Welcomes Overbuilding, Competition for Lower Prices and Better Services

Comments were made at the Fiber Connect conference last week.

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Photo of [left to right] David Wade of EPB, Tarryl Clark of NACO Telecommunications and Technology, Jay Winn of Lumos/NorthState, Robert Conger of ADTRAN, and Linda Hardesty of Fierce Telecom, by Drew Clark

NASHVILLE, June 21, 2022 – A representative from Google Fiber said Wednesday at the Fiber Connect conference that the company is encouraged by competition in the fiber space because it leads to partnerships, lower costs for consumers and greater coverage.

Jessica George said that more partners and more people working in the broadband space will encourage more competition, which will drop prices and increase speeds.

She added that Google has been a long-time proponent for overbuilding, where providers build their infrastructure in areas already covered. More competition in the fiber space promotes overbuilding, which ensures greater coverage and connectivity for consumers in that area, she said.

Jay Winn, chief customer officer at fiber provider Lumos Networks, added that Lumos’s strategy is to be “first with fiber” by connecting all homes and businesses in its territory to fiber – at the cost of occasional overbuilding.

Ultimately, the conflict lies between companies that oppose greater competition in favor of protecting their territory and those that encourage competition in favor of creating more opportunities for their consumers, said George.

“What do [ISPs] really believe makes this industry, makes our world, makes our communities better?” asked George.

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