Telecommunications: Broadband Deployment Plan Should Include Performance Goals and Measures to Guide Federal Investment

GAO-09-494 Published: May 12, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 10, 2009.
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Highlights

The United States ranks 15th among the 30 democratic nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on one measure of broadband (i.e., high-speed Internet) subscribership. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has regulatory authority over broadband, and several federal programs fund broadband deployment. This congressionally requested report discusses (1) the federal broadband deployment policy, principal federal programs, and stakeholders' views of those programs; (2) how the policies of OECD nations with higher subscribership rates compare with U.S. policy; and (3) actions the states have taken to encourage broadband deployment. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed the broadband policies of the United States and other OECD nations, reviewed federal program documentation and budgetary information, and interviewed federal and state officials and industry stakeholders.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Communications Commission To increase transparency and accountability for results, the Chairman of FCC, in developing the national broadband plan, should consult the Secretary of Agriculture and the Assistant Secretary of Commerce and, at a minimum, specify performance goals and measures for broadband deployment, including time frames for achieving the goals.
Closed - Implemented
Broadband Internet access is considered a critical economic engine, a vehicle for enhanced learning and services, and a central component of 21st-century news and entertainment. From 2001 to 2008, the United States slipped from 4th to 15th among the 30 democratic nations that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the number of broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Although this measure is only one of five criteria for evaluating broadband markets, the decline of the United States in OECD's rankings caught the attention of policy makers. In February 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) authorized $7.2 billion to increase broadband availability in the United States. Among other things, the Recovery Act provided funding for (1) the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a national broadband plan; (2) the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), in consultation with FCC, to establish a grants program to expand broadband services to rural and underserved areas and improve access to broadband by public safety agencies; and (3) the Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Utilities Program (RDUP) to issue loans, loan guarantees, and grants to increase rural broadband availability. In a 2009 report, we noted that the Recovery Act required that FCC, in developing the national broadband plan, include benchmarks, a detailed strategy for achieving affordable broadband service, and an evaluation of the progress of projects funded through the Recovery Act. We also noted that to achieve transparency and accountability in the use of federal funds, FCC would need to include additional elements, such as timelines, specific performance measures. Therefore, we recommended that the Chairman of FCC, in developing the national broadband plan, at a minimum specify performance goals and measures for broadband deployment, including time frames for achieving the goals. On March 16, 2010, FCC delivered to Congress the National Broadband Plan. In the National Broadband Plan, FCC included several performance goals, with measures and time frames. For example, Goal 1 specified that 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and actual upload speeds of at least 50 Mbps by 2020; as a milestone, by 2015, 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of 50 Mbps and actual upload speeds of 20 Mbps. Additionally, Goal 4 specified that every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings by 2020. By specifying performance goals and measures, FCC increases accountability and should help promote cost effective expansion of broadband deployment to currently unserved or underserved areas.
Federal Communications Commission To increase transparency and accountability for results, the Chairman of FCC, in developing the national broadband plan, should work with the Secretary of Agriculture and the Assistant Secretary of Commerce to define the roles and responsibilities for each of these agencies in carrying out the plan.
Closed - Implemented
Broadband Internet access is considered a critical economic engine, a vehicle for enhanced learning and services, and a central component of 21st-century news and entertainment. From 2001 to 2008, the United States slipped from 4th to 15th among the 30 democratic nations that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the number of broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Although this measure is only one of five criteria for evaluating broadband markets, the decline of the United States in OECD's rankings caught the attention of policy makers. In February 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) authorized $7.2 billion to increase broadband availability in the United States. Among other things, the Recovery Act provided funding for (1) the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a national broadband plan; (2) the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), in consultation with FCC, to establish a grants program to expand broadband services to rural and underserved areas and improve access to broadband by public safety agencies; and (3) the Department of Agriculture's Rural Development, Utilities Program (RDUP) to issue loans, loan guarantees, and grants to increase rural broadband availability. In a 2009 report, we found that, although the Recovery Act assigns lead responsibilities among the agencies for these different broadband initiatives, these responsibilities are not mutually exclusive; the agencies will need to take each other's efforts into account while carrying out their individually assigned tasks. We also noted that to achieve transparency and accountability in the use of federal funds, FCC will need to include additional elements, such as timelines, specific performance measures, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the responsible federal agencies. Therefore, we recommended that the Chairman of FCC, in developing the national broadband plan, define the roles and responsibilities for the Department of Agriculture (RUPD) and the Department of Commerce (NTIA) in carrying out the plan. In 2013, we confirmed that FCC delivered to Congress the National Broadband Plan. The National Broadband Plan included over 200 recommendations and FCC defined roles and responsibilities for over 75 percent of the recommendations. For example, the National Broadband Plan targeted Congress and the following agencies for the largest number of recommendations: FCC, Education, NTIA, and the Office of Management and Budget; the National Broadband Plan also targeted a recommendation for RDUP. By defining roles and responsibilities, FCC promotes accountability that can help prevent duplication and fragmentation of efforts.

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