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Lawmakers and GAO Call for National Strategy to Address ‘Fragmented’ Broadband Programs

The GAO report identified 25 different broadband-focused funding programs, but some lawmakers argued that all are important.



Photo of Andrew Von Ah, director of physical infrastructure for the Government Accountability Office, courtesy of GAO

WASHINGTON, May 11, 2023 — House lawmakers on Wednesday called for the creation of a unified national broadband strategy, highlighting a newly released Government Accountability Office report that called the existing array of broadband programs “fragmented and overlapping.”

“New funding has targeted gaps that previous programs have not been able to fill… But this fragmentation and overlap has created challenges for the agencies and for the potential recipients of the funding,” said Andrew Von Ah, GAO’s director of physical infrastructure, at a hearing of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

The GAO report identified 25 different broadband-focused funding programs and more than 100 additional programs that could potentially or conditionally be used to support broadband access. While some larger federal agencies have been able to effectively limit duplicative support across their respective programs, their flexibility is often limited by statutory variations, Von Ah said.

“For potential recipients of federal funding, the challenges are even more acute,” Von Ah added. “They must navigate a complex web of eligibility requirements, definitions and deadlines that vary across all the programs… and applying to multiple federal programs can be costly.”

Graphic courtesy of GAO

In 2022, GAO recommended that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration develop legislative proposals for better program alignment and that the White House should develop a national broadband strategy. These recommendations have not yet been implemented, Von Ah said.

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle noted that despite the many federal programs, millions of Americans still lack access to broadband.

“A national strategy is needed… and strong leadership to coordinate all of these agencies’ spending on broadband access is needed,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., chair of the subcommittee.

Ranking Member Kathy Castor, D-Fla., advocated for “reconciling programmatic differences and deadlines that may make it too burdensome for applicants to take full advantage of the complementary programs available to tackle the issue.”

However, Castor defended the range of programs, emphasizing the complex challenges associated with closing the digital divide — and the urgency of solving them.

“A multifaceted problem like this requires multifaceted solutions that leverage expertise from a variety of agencies and stakeholders,” she said. “This helps explain why there are so many important broadband initiatives that support a variety of funding recipients and regions and scopes and approaches.”

Programs created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Digital Equity Act have already driven important progress in narrowing the digital divide, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

In addition to supporting a national broadband strategy, Siefer recommended that the government create a national digital inclusion strategy “to capture and leverage the momentum we are experiencing today.” This digital inclusion strategy should strengthen local efforts, support public-private partnerships and designate a coordinating body to facilitate efforts across federal agencies, she said.

As government agencies work to find the best approach to streamlining broadband funding programs, Siefer emphasized the short-term importance of extending the Affordable Connectivity Program.

“We can’t get to a longer-term solution if ACP just stops,” she said, pointing out that more people lack broadband because of affordability issues than because of availability issues.

Learn more about issues surrounding the Affordable Connectivity Fund at Broadband Breakfast’s upcoming town hall event on June 7.

Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children.


Experts Clash Over Whether Reverse Auctions Are Ideal for BEAD Grants

Reverse auctions would stretch funding further.



Photo of Greg Rosston of Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2023 – States should use a reverse auction process to divvy out money from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, said experts at an American Enterprise Institute event Wednesday.  

States are given two methods to stretch their funding amounts further, said Scott Wallsten, president of Technology Policy Institute. The first is to decide how they will distribute the money and the second is to determine where to set the extremely high-cost threshold, which will indicate where money can be spent for technology other than fiber.  

Reverse auctions where providers bid on the lowest amount of grant funding needed to fund a program are the solution to efficiently distribute limited funds, which are expected to be delivered to the states by June 30, said Wallsten.  

The Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse auctions showed that winning bids were nearly half of what cost models estimated, which shows just how much dollars can stretch if done correctly, said Wallsten. 

Not all industry experts agree, however. CEO of DTC Communications Chris Townson said in a panel this month that reverse auctions simply create a race to the bottom without considering quality. “Let’s put our money to the things that really matter,” he said. 

We often underestimate the ability of firms to build out, said Greg Rosston of Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research Wednesday. Firms will respond to lower bids by finding innovative ways to work more efficiently, he said. Companies have accurate information about program costs and understand the risks, he continued. 

Photo of Greg Rosston during the webinar

“We should take advantage of this by harnessing the power of the markets,” he said, urging states to use reverse auctions to stretch the money further. 

NTIA should give direction on competitive grant requirements

Furthermore, the NTIA should set a framework for what states can do to meet the competitive grant requirement, said Rosston.  

The law specifies that states must have a competitive grant process without explaining what that means, he said. As it stands currently, it is unclear how states will decide how to allocate the money awarded to them in the BEAD program, Rosston continued. There is a lot of opportunity for wasteful spending, he said. 

We do not want 50 states and territories struggling to organize their own competitive grant processes, added Wallsten. 

There is nothing preventing the NTIA from asking the FCC to help the states with reverse auction processes by making the software and rules from RDOF auctions available or even running the auctions for the states, said Rosston. We need to make it easy to have states run their competitive processes as required in the law, he stated. 

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Representatives Focus in on Fiber Prioritization and Spectrum Management at NTIA

House Committee members said they wanted to ensure that the NTIA is appropriately managing funds to support rural areas.



Photo of Alan Davidson of NTIA

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2023 – Representatives at Tuesday’s Oversight Committee of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration expressed concern that the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program is prioritizing fiber builds to the detriment of rural communities. 

The NTIA’s authority and effective legal power was last authorized in 1993. Since then, the communications landscape has changed drastically. 

Recently, the NTIA submitted its 2024 budget request for $117.3 million, nearly double its current authorization. The hearing delved into the inner workings of the agency to ”ensure that NTIA is being good stewards of tax dollars allocated for broadband expansion.” 

Representatives expressed concern that fiber is unjustly prioritized in the BEAD Notice of Funding Opportunity. Building fiber to the premises can be economically impractical for many rural areas. 

In response, sole witness and NTIA Administrator, Alan Davidson, assured representatives that the administration expects many types of technologies to be deployed as part of the BEAD program. 

States are given the prerogative to determine what their best solution for deployment is, he said. States can determine for themselves what price point will qualify a project as an extremely high-cost deployment. 

Although states cannot close off applications to telecom companies based on technology, a fiber company that applies for funding is most likely to receive grant awards unless the area in question is considered an extremely high-cost location.  

Despite this assurance, many representatives, including August Pfluger, R-Texas, expressed concern that rural unserved and underserved locations will remain unfunded throughout the BEAD process. 

We will not accept state plans that do not show conclusive steps on connecting every single unserved address in their jurisdiction, said Davidson. 

Spectrum concerns

For the first time in U.S. history, there is no additional spectrum coming down the pipeline. The NTIA is working on developing a sustainable national spectrum strategy that will represent a government-wide approach to maximizing the potential of the nation’s spectrum resources. 

In April, the NTIA submitted a request for comment regarding the development and implementation of this strategy. It sought comment on the nation’s spectrum needs, how best to engage in long-term spectrum planning, and technology innovations that could better manage the nation’s spectrum resources. 

The NTIA is currently analyzing these responses and is on track to develop a spectrum policy that is “evidence and science based,” said Davidson. It is essential that the nation has a baseline policy to address spectrum conflicts, he said. 

Freeing up spectrum will require interagency coordination to determine where we can repurpose and increase sharing, said Davidson.  

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., is heading two bills, the Spectrum Relocation Enhancement Act and the Spectrum Coexistence Act that would make updates to the spectrum relocation fund that compensates federal agencies to clear spectrum for commercial use and would require NTIA to conduct a review of federal receiver technology to support more intensive use of limited spectrum.  

“Ensuring the federal government speaks with one voice on spectrum issues is foundational to Americas continued global leadership,” said Matsui. “And the NTIA is at the tip of the spear.” 

The Committee also considered 18 pieces of draft legislation that would elevate the NTIA’s role in coordinating interagency broadband funding, spectrum management, and cybersecurity policy development. One of which is the NTIA Reauthorization Act of 2023 that would “modernize the agency’s policies and mission and authorize its funding to match current funding levels.” 

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Expert Opinion

Scott Wallsten: A $10 Billion Broadband Black Hole?

We know little about how California and other states plan to distribute the money under the opaque arrangement.



The author of this Expert Opinion is Scott Wallsten, president of the Technology Policy Institute.

The U.S. Treasury just gave California more than half a billion dollars to fund broadband buildout. This money may help reduce the digital divide. It also might not. There’s really no way to know because the only public information about the grant is a press release that more closely resembles a flyer than an explanation of how the government is spending 540 million taxpayer dollars.

The money comes from the Capital Projects Fund, which is $10 billion allocated by the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. The Act directs the U.S. Treasury to distribute these funds to states, territories, and tribal governments to subsidize new broadband networks.

Congress probably should never have directed the Treasury to lead the program. It’s not a grant-making agency, and Secretary Janet Yellen has bigger things to worry about, like the looming debt ceiling and the global economy.

Still, the Treasury has to do what the law tells it to do, and should be expected to follow some basic rules of good governance.

The program appears to lack even the most basic transparency. Treasury’s website lists a press release similar to California’s for each state award, and those others also provide almost no additional information. They do list “key state contacts,” but it’s typically an entire state agency. That’s just a hair more helpful than telling people to “call Congress” to learn more about government spending.

At a bare minimum, the public should be able to see the plan each state submitted to the Treasury and the final plan the agency approved. That might make it possible for researchers and watchdogs like the Government Accountability Office to evaluate the program — not only to see how well it worked, but to inform other broadband grant programs. Unfortunately, these plans do not appear to be available to the public.

Taxpayers should know how the states intend to spend the money once they have it because there are many ways to distribute the funds to those who would build networks. A long history of broadband subsidies and economic research provide lessons on these practices. It is important to know whether states are heeding or ignoring those lessons.

The answers make a huge difference. Research on the $4.5 billion broadband subsidy program under the Obama administration found that the grant assignment program was little better than randomly selecting winners from the pool of applications, while a more coherent competitive bidding process like a reverse auction would have stretched the money much further.

The little information we have is not encouraging. The grants appear to be spending far more per location than necessary, meaning the money is building less broadband than it could.

For example, California is getting $540 million to serve an expected 127,000 locations, or about $4,250 per location. That’s about the same as what the FCC estimated as the maximum it was willing to pay per location in California in the Rural Development Opportunities Fund in 2020. And because that money was distributed in an auction, the actual subsidy for gigabit connections came in lower than expected, at about $2,000 per location on average.

California does not seem to be an outlier in the Treasury program. Iowa is getting $152.2 million to serve an estimated 18,972 locations, or $8,022 per location. In the FCC’s RDOF subsidy auction, the FCC’s average reserve price for locations in Iowa was about $7,200 per location, and the auction results yielded a lower cost similar to in California — about $2,000 per location.

With the current opaque arrangement, we may never know whether the infrastructure money was well spent because we know little about how the states plan to distribute the money and how their efforts will be evaluated. To its credit, Treasury requires regular reporting on certain metrics by grant recipients. But there is no mention of any plans to invite independent analysis of how the money is spent and its cost-effectiveness.

This kind of transparency is important for more than a nod towards good governance of the $10 billion Capital Projects Fund. Treasury will soon be joined by the Department of Commerce when it releases another $42.5 billion to the states for essentially the same purpose. We should not accept a precedent of keeping the public in the dark on these infrastructure projects.

Scott Wallsten is president of the Technology Policy Institute. He is an economist with expertise in industrial organization and public policy, and his research focuses on competition, regulation, telecommunications, the economics of digitization, and technology policy. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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