People matter, not paperwork, for rural broadband development

21 June 2014 by Steve Blum
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The success of broadband subsidies targeted to rural areas should be evaluated, at least in part, on the number of rural subscribers projects actually attract. That’s one of the conclusions of an investigation by the federal government accounting office into $3 billion worth of grants and loans given out by the U.S. department of agriculture’s rural utilities service as part of the 2009 stimulus program.

There were two pots of broadband stimulus money back then: the NTIA’s broadband technology opportunities program and RUS’s broadband initiatives program (BIP). I worked on grant applications to both programs, and found RUS’s standards a little more exacting – they had been in the rural broadband subsidy business for several years by that time. NTIA was completely new at the game.

But after looking at the results in 2012, the GAO said the subscribership data that RUS was using to track project success was “innaccurate” and a year later found it hadn’t improved substantially. Part of the problem is that the projects served more than just rural communities…

RUS does not track subscribership by rural area and, as a result, is not able to show the impact of the BIP program on rural broadband availability. The [inspector general] previously found that RUS’s performance information makes it impossible to measure BIP’s impact in rural areas because the information was not collected by rural area. The Recovery Act required that BIP service areas be at least 75 percent rural without sufficient access to high-speed broadband service to facilitate economic development. The rest of the project area may not be rural.

GAO is recommending formal, annual reports of how well, or not, RUS-funded projects meet the goals set out for them. That’s a good idea. The wrangling over the latest update of farm support programs consumed a lot of time and effort, but expanded rural broadband development resources. More rigorous oversight will help ensure that the money goes toward serving the people who need it most.