House Commerce Committee Continues Oversight of Federal Broadband Programs

The House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation held a hearing on May 10 discussing federal funding for broadband deployment as part of ongoing efforts to conduct oversight of funding mechanisms for broadband deployment and adoption. The panel heard testimony from Andrew Von Ah of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO);  Dr. George Ford, the Chief Economist at the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies; and National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) Executive Director Angela Siefer. 

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 17% of rural Americans cannot access broadband speeds that meet the standard of 25 megabits per second when downloading and 3 megabits per second when uploading (25/3 Mbps). According to the GAO, federal agencies spent $44 billion dollars on broadband-related programs from fiscal years 2015 to 2020. And, of course, in 2021, Congress allocated $65 billion to close the digital divide through the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act.

Over the years, Congress has created over 144 programs to expand broadband access and adoption. Fifteen different agencies administer all these programs. GAO has recommended that the National Economic Council should develop and implement a national broadband strategy to manage all the federal broadband programs.

Five questions drove the hearing:

  1. What fragmentation, duplication, and overlap currently exist in federal broadband programming across multiple agencies?
  2. Do existing federal programs appropriately target the most critical challenges to availability and adoption?
  3. What inefficiencies limit the utility of existing federal broadband programs?
  4. How well do federal agencies coordinate their funding decisions and do they use common datasets, such as maps?
  5. How would a federal government-wide national broadband strategy support broadband access and affordability, and what should such a strategy look like?

In opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Morgan Griffith (R-VA)  endorsed GAO's recommendation and called for a national broadband strategy. Full Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) echoed that call and said that the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) should take the lead in coordinating the federal government's efforts. 

The subcommittee's ranking member, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) said the hearing should focus on minimizing the administrative burdens on applicants for federal support—and ensuring programs are effective and efficient. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Commerce Committee, applauded the NTIA's efforts to create the programs established by the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act and for creating the thoughtful framework of how those programs will operate. Rep. Pallone noted that none of the Republican members of the committee supported the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act and that the House GOP's proposal on spending clawbacks as part of a debt ceiling deal risk creating accurate broadband maps, extending broadband infrastructure onto Tribal lands, and providing affordable broadband service to students.

Mr. Von Ah testified that closing the digital divide encompasses access to broadband infrastructure but also requires addressing issues related to affordability and acquiring digital skills so that people become broadband adopters.  Having numerous broadband programs can be helpful to address a multifaceted issue like broadband access," he said although he cautioned that fragmentation and overlap can lead to the risk of duplicative support. He clarified that there are:

  • 25 federal programs that are primarily focused on broadband and 13 of those programs overlap because they can each be used for the purpose of broadband deployment.
  • 45 programs have broadband access as one possible use of program funds.  These programs have a broader main purpose, such as economic development, but allow broadband-related activities as one eligible purpose among others.
  • 63 other programs may be used to support broadband access in an ancillary way, or only under certain circumstances, such as broadband projects that connect with other program purposes.

Both in prepared testimony and in response to questions from lawmakers, Von Ah stressed that the four main agencies responsible for broadband funding—the NTIA, the FCC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service, and the U.S. Treasury—are working well together to coordinate funding efforts to expand broadband's reach.

Dr. Ford estimates that the "Deployment Divide" in the U.S. is around 10 percent. "The mission statement with respect to the Deployment Divide for the agencies assigned the task of spending subsidy dollars is plain: maximize economically-sensible connectivity subject to the amount of funding available," he said. "An economically-sensible connection means the value of the connection is at least as great as the cost of that connection." He suggested:

  • subsidies go first to areas without service (unserved) and, if any funding remains, to areas where service fails to meet basic modern needs (underserved),
  • no subsidies should subsidize multiple providers in unserved areas,
  • sorting proposed projects by their subsidy-per-connection and the lowest-cost connections targeted first,
  • broadband is valuable, but not infinitely so, and most of that value is of a private rather than social nature; given this, he proposed spending no more than approximately $20,000 to bring a connection to any location,
  • not subsidizing any municipal broadband networks.

NDIA's Angela Siefer also endorsed the idea of a national broadband strategy and suggested the federal government also adopt a national digital inclusion strategy to:

  1. Strengthen and support local, state, territory, and Tribal digital inclusion ecosystems.
  2. Designate a coordinating body to facilitate digital inclusion work across all federal agencies.
  3. Identify federal programs that could support (through existing funding) digital skills, internet service affordability and access to appropriate devices.
  4. Designate a portion of the cost savings federal government agencies realize through the conversion of manual services to digital for digital inclusion programs.
  5. Support the creation of public-private partnerships across industries and geographies to support local digital inclusion programs.
  6. Ensure the federal government continues to address all barriers to digital equity holistically and comprehensively.

During questioning, Siefer said, "I'm not always popular for saying this, but we'll never completely close the digital divide." She said the creation and adoption of new technologies will mean that there are always some people lagging in the use of essential communications tools. Efforts to address divides will have to be ongoing and long-term.


House Commerce Committee Continues Oversight of Federal Broadband Programs