Government Report Shows Why Billions in Spending Haven’t Closed Digital Divide
One of the few policy agreements across state capitols and in Washington D.C. is the need to close the digital divide. COVID-19 laid bare the fact that too many rural Americans lack the ability to work from home or attend virtual learning due to poor broadband infrastructure. Despite the federal and state governments already spending billions of dollars to address the issue, it remains persistent. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlights how government has managed to spend so much and achieve so little.
One of the most crucial steps to addressing any problem is estimating the size of the problem. In this case, the government has fallen short in measuring the number of Americans that lack high-speed internet access. A 2019 government report estimates that 4% of Americans lack access to broadband services, while a 2021 privately-funded report suggests the number is much higher at 13 percent or 42 million Americans. The fact that the Federal Communications Commission hasn’t been able to definitively answer this question, yet billions are flowing out the door, is proof something is wrong in the process.
From 2009 to 2017, the federal government spent nearly $50 billion to address connectivity but the issue remained persistent. The GAO report displayed why all this spending yielded so little success as the spending went to more than 100 programs run by 15 agencies. Twenty-five of these federal programs had broadband as their main purpose. With so much money flying in so many directions, the efforts were uncoordinated and duplicative.
The GAO report is chock-full of stories of companies and grant recipients confused by the maze of rules and requirements. One particular story includes a Native American tribe having to apply for a grant to hire an engineer to confirm the work of a different engineer paid for by a different grant.
But more spending is on the way. More than $40 billion is set aside to flow from the federal government to states to address the issue, including $176 million already on its way to Louisiana. With all this money to address broadband, the question remains: will this money be spent effectively?
The GAO report doesn’t give much in the way of optimism for federal programs coordinating more effectively, but that doesn’t mean all is lost.
Much of the funding is heading directly to states who are given wide latitude in how to spend these funds. States can ensure that they have the appropriate data on which parts of their state lack broadband access, before doling out the federal dollars. Furthermore, they can ensure that the best technology for the geographic area is used, such as fixed wireless, satellite internet, or 5G in rural areas to streamline the application process.
While the federal government hasn’t been able to close the digital divide with its billions in spending, states can work with the private sector to finally address this issue that has plagued too many Americans.