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Republicans question broadband stimulus program

Grant Gross | Feb. 10, 2011
Two government agencies handing out more than $7 billion for broadband deployment should reexamine grants to projects that overlap broadband service, and they should return any funds that go unspent, several Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives said Thursday.

FRAMINGHAM 10 FEBRUARY 2011 - Two government agencies handing out more than $7 billion for broadband deployment should reexamine grants to projects that overlap broadband service, and they should return any funds that go unspent, several Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives said Thursday.

The U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Rural Utilities Service (RUS) should return to the federal treasury any broadband deployment money that is eventually unspent or withdrawn by the agencies, Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's communications subcommittee said during a hearing. Administrators of those agencies now have the option to reallocate unspent funds to other broadband projects.

The agencies should look at overlapping efforts because the U.S. government faces a $1.48 trillion budget deficit this year, said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the subcommittee chairman. "We have a responsibility to cut costs," he said.

The Republican complaints about the broadband stimulus program came the same day that President Obama called for Congress to spend $18.7 billion to subsidize 4G mobile broadband deployment to 98 percent of the country within five years and to build a nationwide mobile broadband network for emergency response agencies. The programs would be funded through spectrum auctions.

Republican subcommittee members pointed to complaints by broadband providers in five states, including Illinois and Maine, that the funding from 2009's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was being used by competitors to compete against existing service. Walden and other Republicans repeated old criticisms that the Recovery Act pushed out the broadband money before a national broadband map was complete.

The RUS provided $101 million in grants and loans to Rural Telephone Service (RTS), with part of the money used to overbuild existing broadband in Hays, Kansas, said Gary Shorman, president and CEO of broadband provider Eagle Communications.

"We're wasting government dollars, taxpayer dollars, my dollars, to provide a competitive service in the markets that we serve, markets that have multiple broadband providers," Shorman told the subcommittee. "There has to be a fair playing field. If one provider has a boatload of government taxpayer money, it makes it very hard for a private, small company like ours."

Without a broadband map, duplication was likely, said Representative John Shimkus (R-Ill.). "We messed up royally when we didn't go buy the broadband map," he said.

But some Democrats on the subcommittee questioned whether Shorman has a legitimate complaint. RTS didn't return a message seeking comment, and RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein didn't testify at the hearing, but Rep. Michael Doyle (D-Penn.) said the RUS sent employees to Kansas to review the RTS application for funding and found it valid.

 

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