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US lawmakers look for waste in broadband stimulus

Grant Gross | Feb. 28, 2013
Some Republican lawmakers on Wednesday accused two U.S. agencies of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars in broadband stimulus money on failed projects, but supporters of the broadband spending questioned the Republican numbers.

Auditors have not found waste in West Virginia, Strickling said. "We're confusing the capabilities of what they're getting with the cost that they paid," he said.

Another Republican, Representative Joe Barton of Texas, suggested the NTIA spent $100,000 per house connected to broadband. Strickling questioned how Barton came up with those numbers, because the NTIA's broadband grants focused on middle-mile capacity to hospitals, schools and libraries and not on residential users.

When Barton demanded Strickling provide a count of how many end-user customers the NTIA projects have served, Strickling said he didn't know. In some cases, the NTIA-funded projects provide wholesale service to other Internet service providers.

The broadband program wasn't needed, even if it did provide some benefits, Barton said. "If you obligate and spend $7 billion, you darn well better help somebody," he said.

Several Republicans and two witnesses focused on alleged overbuilding in Colorado and other states. A $100.6 million project in Colorado, the EAGLE-Net Alliance, has laid fiber in populated areas already covered by other ISPs, said Pete Kirchhof, executive vice president of the Colorado Telecommunications Association.

EAGLE-Net should focus on its "original mission to provide service to unserved and underserved areas," Kirchhof said. "We respectfully ask committee members to strongly encourage EAGLE-Net to negotiate in good faith with local providers to use existing local facilities and to avoid duplication of existing infrastructure."

Strickling defended the EAGLE-Net project, saying its focus is on providing high-bandwidth connections to schools, some of which have dozens of users sharing a 4Mbps connection. Schools have "much higher needs" for broadband than individual customers, he said.

NTIA is trying to negotiate "peace" between EAGLE-Net and other ISPs, he added.

Some of the ISPs complaining about competition from broadband stimulus money also receive telecom subsidies from RUS and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, added Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat. Private companies have spent billions of dollars to roll out broadband, but "these investments have been enabled, to some extent, by public resources," he said.

 

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