GOP attacks stimulus broadband projects

As a result, stimulus spending on extending broadband access to underserved areas has been wasteful and failed to meet its mandate, according to the GOP.

Senior Republicans made the argument at an oversight hearing Thursday by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (Fla.) pointed to a $33.5 million grant awarded in north Georgia, where "extensive broadband service" is already in place. Windstream, the incumbent provider, says 90 percent of homes and businesses in the area already have access to broadband.

"Supporters of the stimulus promised that it would create millions of new jobs and that all Americans would have access to fast and affordable broadband," Stearns said. "Yet here we are, over a year later, and the early reviews do not appear very positive."

Top Democrats on the panel said they are pleased with the progress of the stimulus spending, noting that the Commerce and Agriculture departments had to build an infrastructure from scratch for reviewing and choosing applications.

So far, two agencies —NTIA and RUS — in the departments have awarded more than 60 projects totaling more than $1.25 billion in grants and loans.

But Stearns and Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), the panel's highest-ranking Republican, called the stimulus programs "flawed" and ineffective.

Barton said: “What disturbs me most are the rumors that some of the funds that have been distributed by NTIA and RUS are for projects that overlay existing broadband infrastructure. I’m aware of at least two projects that appear to be overbuilds, and given the relaxing of the rules for the next round of funding from the NTIA, this problem will only get worse. What due diligence are the NTIA and the RUS doing themselves to ensure money is not being spent where facilities already exist?"

He pointed out a Republican amendment offered to the stimulus bill over a year ago, which would require stimulus funds go to unserved areas before going to underserved areas.

"Not one Democrat voted for the amendment," he said. "That vote was confirmation that the broadband stimulus funds were not about quickly getting service to those who don't have it, but about subsidizing companies and projects that were not otherwise economically viable."

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) applauded recent changes to the second round of funding requirements focusing on "middle mile" service to boost the speed and reach of networks in rural areas.

He said he's "confident" the agencies "have been managing this program diligently."

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), former chairman of the subcommittee and a senior member, also praised the stimulus projects for creating jobs and expanding open broadband networks so underserved areas "can link to the global economy."

Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.) are concerned about other rule changes to the application process. Instead of having 30 days to review awards, incumbent providers have only 15 days to examine awardees' applications to determine whether the potential project areas already have broadband service.




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