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February 26, 2013

Millions of Dollars Wasted on US Broadband Plans

By Ashok Bindra, TMCnet Contributor

The government has wasted millions of dollars on rural broadband programs that were ill-conceived and poorly implemented. These expenses are part of the $7 billion U.S. stimulus plan initiated in 2009 to bring high-speed Internet service to rural areas, according to Bloomberg (News - Alert).

In an e-mail to Bloomberg reporter Todd Shields, Representative Greg Walden of Oregon wrote, “The government has spent millions on equipment it did not need and on stringing fiber to areas that already had fiber.”

Walden is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce panel’s Communications Subcommittee, which is expected to hold a hearing on Wednesday on the spending.

The hearing is scheduled as long as Republicans and Democrats clash over across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect March 1, unless there’s an agreement.

Walden added, “At a time when government is considering cutting meat inspectors and FAA traffic controllers to address the federal spending problem, we need to be careful how we use taxpayer dollars.” The representative indicated that he was not going to tolerate any waste or abuse. However, “it appears we’ve uncovered millions that fit that category.”

The report highlights a memo prepared by the subcommittee’s Republican staff, which indicates that many projects funded under the programs have not been completed, and some have been criticized as overbuilding, or installing lines where private companies already offer broadband service.

But there are some success stories. A fact sheet posted on the website of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration shows that the Commerce Department program has deployed or improved 78,000 miles of lines carrying broadband, and connected more than 11,200 institutions such as schools and libraries.

The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) is run by the department’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration.

“The vast majority of BTOP projects have performed well,” Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the Telecommunications Administration, wrote in a blog post. Officials identified problems with nine projects out of 233 awarded and have taken “enforcement actions to ensure that taxpayer dollars weren’t being wasted.”

Likewise, the memo also suggests that the Commerce Department’s inspector general found more than a million overspent on computer gear in West Virginia. But an aide to the state’s governor disputed the finding, and in a letter to the inspector general, said the spending allowed the state to buy more computer gear at a discount.

“West Virginia lags behind nationally in broadband capabilities,” Rob Alsop, chief of staff for West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, said in the January 25 letter. “This grant is drastically expanding broadband capabilities into our schools, libraries, public facilities, and public safety offices.”

Edited by Braden Becker
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