Broadband grant program has problems, GAO official says

NTIA and Rural Utilities Service deal with heavy workload

The Commerce and Agriculture departments are working on tight deadlines with few personnel and limited data to distribute $7 billion in economic stimulus law funding for broadband networks, according to a senior Government Accountability Office executive.

Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and USDA's Rural Utilities Service are likely to have scheduling, staffing and data problems as they distribute $4.7 billion and $2.5 billion, respectively, for broadband grants, Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues for the GAO, told a Senate panel Oct. 27.

So far, 2,200 applications have been received for the broadband grants at the two agencies, about twice as many as for previous grant programs. The NTIA hired 30 additional staff members in fiscal 2009 and will add 40 more in fiscal 2010 to handle the workload, and the utilities service is adding 47 jobs, Goldstein told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Meanwhile, the agencies will be awarding loans and grants before the national broadband map or plan is complete. The Federal Communications Commission expects to complete the plan by February 2010, and the mapping data will be available in March 2010 at the earliest. The first set of grants for broadband mapping was announced earlier this month.

Although the NTIA and utilities service have taken steps to mitigate the risks — including hiring contracting staff members to supplement their in-house personnel and recruiting contractors and vendors to help perform initial application reviews — some possible problems haven't been dealt with, Goldstein said.

“Despite these steps, several risks remain, including a lack of funding for oversight beyond fiscal year 2010 and a lack of updated performance measures to ensure accountability for NTIA and RUS,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein made no recommendations at the hearing, but he said GAO intends to issue a report with recommendations in November.

Jonathan Adelstein, administrator of the utilities service, said at the hearing that several of the problems raised in the first round of broadband grants will be dealt with in later rounds.

“It would be premature to speculate about specific changes to our regulations until we have completed the evaluation of first-round projects, but it is important to note that this is not a static process," he said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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