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House Republicans Call for Audit of USDA Broadband Program

In a letter to the Government Accountability Office earlier this week, Republican members of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce described a number of concerns about USDA Broadband ReConnect Program awards.

A group of House Republicans has asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to audit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Broadband ReConnect Program, which doled out more than $600 million in fiscal year 2020 for broadband infrastructure in local areas. 

The request to GAO was made via letter two days ago. Several members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce signed the letter. 

“As the committee of jurisdiction on communications policy, it is our responsibility to ensure federal programs to expand broadband infrastructure and connect all Americans are administered efficiently and effectively,” the letter said. “Without appropriate oversight, however, we are concerned that this program could overbuild existing federally and privately supported broadband networks.”

The letter notes that “[G]overnment watchdogs have long raised concerns with USDA’s management of its broadband infrastructure support programs” and referenced a 2011 hearing held by the Energy and Commerce Committee. During that hearing, the USDA Office of the Inspector General observed, among other things, that USDA had committed “significant portions of its resources to funding competitive service in areas with pre-existing broadband access rather than expanding service to communities without existing access.” 

The letter cites two other general concerns. First, it requested GAO to examine whether ReConnect awards overlap with broadband funding given out by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which directs money to areas similar to those “purported to be served through the temporary ReConnect Pilot Program.” 

Second, the letter expresses some disapproval with the data that USDA has used to award funding. The officials make reference to the Broadband DATA Act, which was passed in March and called for the FCC to develop more granular broadband availability maps to fix the flawed and widely criticized Form 477 data. While the letter confirms that the FCC hasn’t produced the new maps, it suggests that USDA should utilize better data for ReConnect awards. 

“[T]he National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the principal advisor to the president on all telecommunications issues, has collected broadband availability data for up to 20 states, and that data should be used to ensure that federal funds are being used efficiently until the FCC’s coverage maps are complete,” the letter said. “Nonetheless, the USDA announced rules for the second round of funding under the temporary ReConnect Pilot Program, without accurate maps, and notwithstanding that this program is a temporary program.”

The letter concludes by stressing a sense of urgency to GAO, as USDA is now taking applications for the ReConnect Program.

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.