Sen. John Thune Launches Broadband Oversight Effort

Thune distributed a letter dated Tuesday seeking stakeholder input.

Sen. John Thune Launches Broadband Oversight Effort
Photo of Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., in February 2011 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

WASHINGTON, December 6, 2022 – Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., announced Tuesday that he will conduct a review of federal broadband programs, becoming the latest Republican lawmaker to pledge to turn up congressional scrutiny of telecommunications officials.

Thune distributed a letter dated Tuesday seeking stakeholder input on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s stewardship of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment fund, policies related to the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, and several “general broadband issues.”

In the letter, Thune probed several traditional conservative policy points, questioning federal guidelines that allegedly run afoul of technological neutrality or favor municipal networks, union workers, or domestic manufacturers.

“In order to ensure rural communities have access to these services, it is critical for federal agencies to efficiently spend funds on the areas that need it the most,” Thune said in a statement. “Every federal dollar that has been spent should go toward the stated purpose of expanding connectivity to truly unserved areas.

“Congressional oversight has been noticeably absent in these areas, and there is serious concern that the federal government would repeat previous mistakes where agencies’ gross mismanagement of broadband funds fell on the backs of taxpayers across the country,” he added.

Thune cited a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from May 2022 that concluded, “The U.S. broadband efforts are not guided by a national strategy with clear roles, goals, objectives, and performance measures.” The report discovered more than 100 individual programs supervised by 15 agencies.

The report further found that many programs have overlapping purposes and many attempts to harmonize them are corralled by statute. Without congressional action, it said, federal efforts cannot be “fully coordinated.”

A more recent GAO report released publicly on Wednesday found the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not, “set specific goals for what it wants [ReConnect broadband program] to achieve or for how it will measure how well the program is working.” The report also urged the agency to strengthen its anti-fraud protocols.

Thune last week introduced the Rural Internet Improvement Act, which would streamline the Department of Agriculture’s broadband initiatives and limit the use of the USDA’s ReConnect funds to acutely unserved areas.

This fall, the GOP have made clear its intention to heighten scrutiny of broadband administrators. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Penn., in September told Broadband Breakfast that he planned to subpoena the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to testify before the House Agriculture committee after the two agencies declined to appear at a hearing on the 2023 farm bill.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., that same month requested a list of all pending and expected FCC rulemakings, alleging a history of extra-statutory rulemakings. In November, McMorris Rodgers staffers re-emphasized the congresswoman’s commitment to oversight.

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