The rush is on to approve applications for broadband funds

GAO report outlines possible risks for Commerce, USDA program

The Agriculture and Commerce departments oversaw the first stimulus law funding for broadband networks, but they have a much larger workload and less time for due diligence in the final round of grants, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the USDA’s Rural Utilities Services may have insufficient resources to oversee, monitor and distribute all $7.2 billion in broadband funding by the Sept. 30 deadline, the GAO report said. There are problems with maintaining enough staffing and getting sufficient data on broadband availability throughout the country, the report dated Aug. 4 said.

GAO recommended that the agencies beef up their planning for continued oversight beyond Sept. 30.

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The NTIA and rural utilities service did not state an opinion on the recommendation. However, the agencies outlined steps being taken to mitigate some of the risks and the NTIA said the program would meet the Sept. 30 deadline.

Under the stimulus law, Congress set aside $7.2 billion to be awarded to public and private organizations to expand broadband services in rural and areas with little service.

In the first round, which began in July 2009 and ended in April 2010, the agencies received more than 2,200 applications and awarded 150 grants, loans and grant/loan combinations that totaled $2.2 billion.

The GAO gave the NTIA and utilities service high scores for their due diligence performed on that initial round of applications.

“GAO’s review of 32 award recipient applications found that the agencies consistently reviewed the applications and substantiated the information as specified in the first funding notice. In each of the files, GAO observed written documentation that the agencies and their contractors reviewed and verified pertinent application materials, and requested additional documentation where necessary,” the report said.

However, the second round, which began in January, has  problems. First, there is twice as much money to be obligated: $4.2 billion. Secondly, there is less time available for due diligence. The NTIA will have six months for its evaluations, rather than eight; and the rural utilities service will have six months, rather than nine, the report said.

The agencies said that with staff experience, and lessons learned from the first round, they expect to be able to handle the increased workload with the same high standards. But the GAO report cautioned that there may be pressures to cut corners.

“However, as the Recovery Act’s obligation deadline draws near, the agencies may face increased pressure to approve awards,” the report stated.

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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