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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Background and Issues for Congressional Oversight of ARRA Broadband Awards

Lennard G. Kruger
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, P.L. 111-5) provided an unprecedented level of federal funding for broadband projects across the nation. These projects are intended to expand broadband availability and adoption in unserved and underserved areas, which in turn is believed to contribute to increased future economic development in those areas.

The ARRA provided nearly $7 billion for broadband grant and loan programs to be administered by two separate agencies: the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the Department of Commerce (DOC) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). With the ARRA broadband projects awarded and now moving forward, the focus in Congress has shifted to oversight. Projects are required to be substantially complete within two years, and fully complete within three years. NTIA and RUS are monitoring the awards to protect against waste, fraud, and abuse, and to ensure that each project reaches its promised milestones, goals, and outcomes. A key oversight role will be played by the Offices of Inspector General in the DOC and the USDA, which are monitoring the projects for waste, fraud, and abuse, and are investigating specific complaints. Both NTIA and RUS have the authority to reclaim and recover awards (either for cause or in cases where awardees decide not to pursue the project) and return the deobligated funds to the U.S. Treasury.

The 112th Congress will play an important oversight role. A number of committees, including the House Committee on Energy and Commerce; the House Committee on Agriculture; the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation; the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are expected to monitor the ARRA broadband programs in NTIA and RUS.

To date, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology has held two oversight hearings on the ARRA broadband programs. On October 5, 2011, the House passed H.R. 1343, which seeks to clarify and reinforce the requirement that deobligated ARRA broadband funding is returned to the U.S. Treasury. The legislation also sets forth requirements for how NTIA and RUS must respond to information and recommendations received from the Office of the Inspector General and the Comptroller General. A companion bill, S. 1659, has been introduced in the Senate.

As the ARRA broadband projects move forward, the primary issue for the 112th Congress is how to ensure that the money is being spent wisely and will most effectively provide broadband service to areas of the nation that need it most, while at the same time minimizing any unwarranted disruption to private sector broadband deployment. Congress will also be assessing how the broadband stimulus projects fit into the overall goals of the National Broadband Plan.

Date of Report: July 31, 2012
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R41775
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