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Risks seen in plan for broadband

November 18, 2009|Scott J. Wilson

A $7.2-billion federal program to bring high-speed Internet service to areas without it lacks basic information and adequate safeguards to ensure that the money isn't wasted, a government report says.

The U.S. Commerce and Agriculture departments were given the funds to expand broadband availability across the country as part of February's federal stimulus package.

But the agencies have been scrambling to review a crush of grant and loan applications while facing tight deadlines to distribute the money, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Monday.

The first allocation of funds, originally set for Nov. 7, has been delayed until December.

The agencies have had just two months to review 2,200 applications for the first round of funding alone, the report said.

By comparison, the California Public Utilities Commission took four to six months to review just 54 applications in a $100-million broadband program.

Under Congress' mandate, all $7.2 billion must be distributed by Sept. 30, 2010.

The programs "present risks of waste, fraud and abuse," the GAO said, because of the compressed timetable for distributing the money and because of inadequate data on what areas actually lack broadband service.

Officials "will be awarding loans and grants before the national broadband plan or broadband mapping is complete," the report said.

Program funds are intended to be spent on expanding broadband network wiring, developing public computer centers in places such as libraries and schools, and "innovative projects to stimulate demand for, and adoption of, broadband."

To prevent waste and fraud, the GAO urged the two entities responsible for distributing the money -- the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service -- to develop a way to review and measure the effectiveness of fund recipients beyond 2010.

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scott.wilson@latimes.com

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