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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today discussed his nationwide broadband oversight effort that will hold agencies accountable and ensure that previously authorized broadband funding is being used in the most efficient way possible to protect taxpayer dollars. Thune noted that in the last two years, Congress has allocated nearly $80 billion in funding for broadband-related services, which is split among 133 programs at 15 different agencies.
As part of Thune’s effort, he recently sent a letter to U.S. Department of Commerce Inspector General Peggy Gustafson for her failure to fulfill congressionally mandated oversight of previously authorized broadband funding. Thune also sent a letter to a diverse group of stakeholders, including broadband associations, public interest groups, and free-market think tanks to seek their input on the current broadband regulatory structure.
Thune’s remarks below (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, as a resident of a rural state, expanding rural broadband access has long been a priority of mine.
“And I’m not the only one.
“Over the years Congress has dedicated significant resources to closing the digital divide.
“And that has been especially true over the past three years.
“Congress has appropriated a lot of money for broadband lately.
“A whopping $79 billion to be precise dedicated solely to broadband-related projects.
“$79 billion, on top of the billions of dollars the Federal Communications Commission disburses annually under its Universal Service Fund.
“That is an unprecedented amount of money.
“In fact, with that much money we ought to be able to deliver gold- and diamond-laced broadband to every household in the United States.
“But, Mr. President, appropriating money is not enough.
“We could throw trillions of dollars at the rural broadband problem and still not close the digital divide.
“Because all the money in the world is useless if it’s not being spent the right way.
“As I said, we have enough money now that we ought to be deploying gold- and diamond-laced broadband across the country.
“But I have serious questions about whether this money is actually going to meaningfully move us toward closing the digital divide.
“The money that we currently have, as much as it is, is spread out over 15 separate agencies and 133 programs.
“To say that that is not conducive to a coherent rural broadband strategy is an understatement.
“Now, the lion’s share of the funding does go through one agency – the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA.
“But it is an agency with a very poor record of efficiently disbursing broadband funding.
“The last time Congress provided NTIA with a big infusion of broadband funding – a fraction of the funding it is now responsible for – the agency struggled with implementation and ended up overbuilding existing broadband networks, resulting in billions of taxpayer dollars being spent with little to show.
“And I’ve seen very little to convince me that NTIA is likely to do much better this time around.
“In July of last year, NTIA called for volunteers to help determine how to allocate $1.5 billion Congress had provided to NTIA to improve broadband access.
“And yet Congress has now put the agency in charge of distributing the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program.
“I am deeply concerned that without serious oversight, NTIA will make – and is already making – similar mistakes when managing its current broadband programs.
“That is why earlier this month I began an oversight effort to review the numerous federal broadband programs.
“Oversight of how federal broadband dollars are being spent is necessary to ensure that agencies aren’t misusing billions of taxpayer dollars and, most importantly, to make sure the funding is going to areas that are actually unserved.
“I’ve already requested input from a diverse group of stakeholders to identify ways we can improve broadband programs – and broadband policy more generally – as we head into the 118th Congress.
“And I’ve requested that federal agencies provide information on their efforts to improve broadband infrastructure siting, a key component of deploying broadband networks.
“In the new year, I will work on compiling these responses and presenting stakeholder concerns to NTIA, the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Agriculture, and the Treasury Department.
“And if changes need to be made to the programs Congress has established, I will do everything I can to hold Congress and federal agencies accountable for making those changes so that all of these programs work as effectively as possible and as Congress intended.
“Mr. President, to expand rural broadband access and actually close the digital divide, it’s not enough to just appropriate money.
“We also need to make sure that money is being spent in the right way.
“And I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure that the money that has been appropriated for rural broadband actually goes to expanding access to those who are currently unserved.
“Mr. President, I yield the floor.”