WASHINGTON — Four years and $7 billion of federal stimulus funding for expanding broadband Internet access into rural areas has produced some incongruous results, such as a $20,000 router in a tiny library in West Virginia.
During Wednesday’s hearing on oversight of broadband spending, members of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology grilled Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary of the Commerce Department for Communications and Information and head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, about whether federal funds were being spent efficiently or wasted on unnecessary upgrades.
Central Oregon received a $4.4 million grant to create a comprehensive, regional 40 gigabit-per-second fiber ring that could connect Bend with Madras, Prineville, La Pine and Sunriver in 2010. As of November 2012, the overall project was 77 percent complete, according to its last quarterly status report.
Crook County also received a $3.9 million grant to upgrade its public computer availability and provide computer training to the public. This grant was listed as 86 percent complete in its last status report.
Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Hood River, asked Strickling if a one-room library in Marmet, W.Va., population 1,500, needs a $20,000 router capable of handling hundreds of simultaneous connections.
The question is not what do we need today in terms of capability, but what do we need in the next 10 years, said Strickling.
The library in Marmet is only open three days a week and has only one Internet connection, Walden countered.
“Do you really think that’s going build out to where they now need a couple hundred Internet (connections)?” he asked.
A router capable of handling 100 Internet connections could have been bought for roughly $16,000 less, which would have produced a statewide savings of $2.8 million if applied to each of West Virginia’s 172 libraries, Walden said.
Strickling said the audit of West Virginia’s broadband stimulus expenditures did not factor in purchasing discounts and overstated potential savings. The program hopes to connect “anchor institutions” in every community, such as schools, libraries and hospitals, which will need much greater bandwidth than an individual user because they will need to accommodate many users at once.
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., criticized the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, which is overseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, for authorizing $100 million in funds to “overbuild,” or replicate, a fiber-optic cable network in parts of Eastern Colorado already served by private companies.
Instead, the stimulus funding should be directed toward delivering broadband Internet access to isolated areas in the more mountainous western part of the state, he said.
But the stimulus plan also had its defenders on the subcommittee.
“I don’t really understand how any of my colleagues can argue that providing better, faster Internet and more digital literacy training to unserved and underserved areas of the country is something we should criticize,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn.
Members of the committee have every right to question the way funds have been spent in places like West Virginia and Colorado, he said. “But what you don’t have the right to do is to imply that this program, in its totality, is a waste of government money and hasn’t met its mission.”
Part of the government’s efforts will “prime the pump” for private investment and development, Strickling said.
Internet usage is going to double by 2016, and the number of connected users will grow from one billion in 2011 to three billion in 2016, he said.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called the National Telecommunications and Information Administration “a model of transparency and accountability,” and noted that the majority of the funded projects are meeting and exceeding their projected timetables.
There are 19 million Americans who don’t have high-speed Internet access; 16.5 million of those are in rural communities.