A year after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made a call for a unified Federal government broadband strategy, that idea appeared to attract some backing at a House subcommittee hearing on May 10 that tackled possible next steps for consolidating and organizing the programs.
Currently, the government operates 133 Federal programs spread across 15 agencies that aim to expand access to broadband services. Despite that array, GAO Director of Physical Infrastructure Andrew Von Ah told subcommittee members that millions of Americans still lack reliable broadband service.
“Having numerous broadband programs can be helpful to address a multifaceted issue like broadband access, but this fragmentation can also mean that programs overlap and lead to the risk of duplicative support,” Von Ah said during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing.
Von Ah continued, “A national broadband strategy, led by the Executive Office of the President, could help coordination across the Federal agencies overseeing broadband programs.”
GAO first called for a national broadband strategy in a May 2022 report, arguing that agencies’ efforts are not guided by clear roles, goals, objectives, and performance measures.
Subcommittee Chairman Morgan Griffith, R-Va., said that the current lineup of broadband programs is “riddled with lack of coordination.”
“A national strategy is needed – it’s necessary,” Rep. Griffith said. “And strong leadership to coordinate all of these agencies spending on broadband access is needed.”
Both lawmakers and hearing witnesses agreed that a national broadband strategy would need to have several different layers – such as a section specific to Tribal connectivity; identified definitions of “rural areas”; standards that would streamline and consolidate duplicative broadband programs; and recommendations on how to mitigate waste, fraud, and abuse.
Von Ah explained that the four big agencies that administer broadband funds – the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, and the Departments of Agriculture and Treasury – meet on a regular basis to discuss the effectiveness of their efforts and attempt to mitigate any duplicative awards.
Still, both the GAO official and members of Congress agree that more oversight of these agencies and their broadband funding should be in the cards.
There is immense bipartisan support to close the digital divide across the nation and offer Americans broadband access, but – as made clear during the May 10 hearing – there continues to be support across the aisle for a national broadband strategy.
Last Congress, Reps. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., and Peter Welch, D-Vt., joined with Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., to introduce the Proper Leadership to Align Networks (PLAN) for Broadband Act, which called on President Biden to develop a national broadband strategy.
Both the House and Senate PLAN for Broadband Act bills failed to get out of committee.