Telecommunications:

Broadband Deployment Plan Should Include Performance Goals and Measures to Guide Federal Investment

GAO-09-494: Published: May 12, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 10, 2009.

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The United States ranks 15th among the 30 democratic nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on one measure of broadband (i.e., high-speed Internet) subscribership. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has regulatory authority over broadband, and several federal programs fund broadband deployment. This congressionally requested report discusses (1) the federal broadband deployment policy, principal federal programs, and stakeholders' views of those programs; (2) how the policies of OECD nations with higher subscribership rates compare with U.S. policy; and (3) actions the states have taken to encourage broadband deployment. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed the broadband policies of the United States and other OECD nations, reviewed federal program documentation and budgetary information, and interviewed federal and state officials and industry stakeholders.

According to federal officials, the federal approach to broadband deployment is focused on advancing universal access. Federal officials said that historically the role of the government in carrying out a market-driven policy has been to create market incentives and remove barriers to competition, and the role of the private sector has been to fund broadband deployment. Under this policy, broadband infrastructure has been deployed extensively in the United States. However, gaps remain, primarily in rural areas, because of limited profit potential. Eleven federal programs help fund telecommunications infrastructure deployment, particularly in rural areas, and two of these programs, administered by the Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Utilities Program (RDUP), focus specifically on broadband infrastructure deployment. Industry stakeholders credit federal programs with helping to increase broadband deployment, particularly in rural areas, but told GAO that because of the high cost and low profit potential of providing broadband services in rural areas, the federal government will likely need to provide additional funding to achieve universal access. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provides more than $7 billion to the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), FCC, and RDUP, to map broadband infrastructure in the United States, develop a plan for broadband deployment, and issue loans and grants to fund broadband access and availability in rural areas. This funding will greatly increase the potential for achieving universal access, but overlap in responsibilities for these new broadband initiatives makes coordination among the agencies important to avoid fragmentation and duplication. Current administration officials said they are still formulating their telecommunication agenda. In comparison to the policies of several other OECD countries with higher broadband subscribership rates per 100 inhabitants, the U.S. policy lacks elements identified by the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 as essential to achieving effective and efficient policy outcomes. Specifically, according to officials of these countries' governments, several of the OECD nations with higher rankings have written broadband policies, action plans, goals, and performance measures. A number of these other countries also have provided financial support, created financial incentives, or taken other steps to promote broadband. In interviews with state officials, GAO learned that states vary in their actions to encourage deployment. Officials in more than half the states cited gaps in broadband deployment and said their states were considering or had taken actions to address these gaps. Officials in 12 states said they had mapped their states and 13 more said they had plans to map; officials in 12 states said they have broadband deployment plans; and officials in 14 states said they have provided some type of financial support for broadband deployment.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To increase transparency and accountability for results, the Chairman of FCC, in developing the national broadband plan, should consult the Secretary of Agriculture and the Assistant Secretary of Commerce and, at a minimum, specify performance goals and measures for broadband deployment, including time frames for achieving the goals.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Broadband Internet access is considered a critical economic engine, a vehicle for enhanced learning and services, and a central component of 21st-century news and entertainment. From 2001 to 2008, the United States slipped from 4th to 15th among the 30 democratic nations that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the number of broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Although this measure is only one of five criteria for evaluating broadband markets, the decline of the United States in OECD's rankings caught the attention of policy makers. In February 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) authorized $7.2 billion to increase broadband availability in the United States. Among other things, the Recovery Act provided funding for (1) the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a national broadband plan; (2) the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), in consultation with FCC, to establish a grants program to expand broadband services to rural and underserved areas and improve access to broadband by public safety agencies; and (3) the Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Utilities Program (RDUP) to issue loans, loan guarantees, and grants to increase rural broadband availability. In a 2009 report, we noted that the Recovery Act required that FCC, in developing the national broadband plan, include benchmarks, a detailed strategy for achieving affordable broadband service, and an evaluation of the progress of projects funded through the Recovery Act. We also noted that to achieve transparency and accountability in the use of federal funds, FCC would need to include additional elements, such as timelines, specific performance measures. Therefore, we recommended that the Chairman of FCC, in developing the national broadband plan, at a minimum specify performance goals and measures for broadband deployment, including time frames for achieving the goals. On March 16, 2010, FCC delivered to Congress the National Broadband Plan. In the National Broadband Plan, FCC included several performance goals, with measures and time frames. For example, Goal 1 specified that 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and actual upload speeds of at least 50 Mbps by 2020; as a milestone, by 2015, 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of 50 Mbps and actual upload speeds of 20 Mbps. Additionally, Goal 4 specified that every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings by 2020. By specifying performance goals and measures, FCC increases accountability and should help promote cost effective expansion of broadband deployment to currently unserved or underserved areas.

    Recommendation: To increase transparency and accountability for results, the Chairman of FCC, in developing the national broadband plan, should work with the Secretary of Agriculture and the Assistant Secretary of Commerce to define the roles and responsibilities for each of these agencies in carrying out the plan.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Broadband Internet access is considered a critical economic engine, a vehicle for enhanced learning and services, and a central component of 21st-century news and entertainment. From 2001 to 2008, the United States slipped from 4th to 15th among the 30 democratic nations that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the number of broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Although this measure is only one of five criteria for evaluating broadband markets, the decline of the United States in OECD's rankings caught the attention of policy makers. In February 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) authorized $7.2 billion to increase broadband availability in the United States. Among other things, the Recovery Act provided funding for (1) the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a national broadband plan; (2) the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), in consultation with FCC, to establish a grants program to expand broadband services to rural and underserved areas and improve access to broadband by public safety agencies; and (3) the Department of Agriculture's Rural Development, Utilities Program (RDUP) to issue loans, loan guarantees, and grants to increase rural broadband availability. In a 2009 report, we found that, although the Recovery Act assigns lead responsibilities among the agencies for these different broadband initiatives, these responsibilities are not mutually exclusive; the agencies will need to take each other's efforts into account while carrying out their individually assigned tasks. We also noted that to achieve transparency and accountability in the use of federal funds, FCC will need to include additional elements, such as timelines, specific performance measures, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the responsible federal agencies. Therefore, we recommended that the Chairman of FCC, in developing the national broadband plan, define the roles and responsibilities for the Department of Agriculture (RUPD) and the Department of Commerce (NTIA) in carrying out the plan. In 2013, we confirmed that FCC delivered to Congress the National Broadband Plan. The National Broadband Plan included over 200 recommendations and FCC defined roles and responsibilities for over 75 percent of the recommendations. For example, the National Broadband Plan targeted Congress and the following agencies for the largest number of recommendations: FCC, Education, NTIA, and the Office of Management and Budget; the National Broadband Plan also targeted a recommendation for RDUP. By defining roles and responsibilities, FCC promotes accountability that can help prevent duplication and fragmentation of efforts.

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