To expand broadband, accountability is key, Thune says

Expanding broadband to more rural areas has long been a priority of mine. As we are increasingly reliant on an internet connection to run a business, provide health care, or do homework, it is more critical than ever that we close the digital divide.

In the last two years, Congress has allocated nearly $80 billion for broadband-related services. The good news is that, in addition to sustained investment from telecommunications providers, this funding should help expand broadband access to areas where connectivity challenges remain unresolved. The bad news is that this funding is split among 133 programs at 15 different federal agencies, with the lion’s share going to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which has previously fumbled attempts to expand broadband access.

In 2009, a government stimulus bill allocated $4.7 billion to NTIA to expand broadband in rural and unserved areas, a fraction of the funding it has available to it today. Even then the agency struggled with implementation as a number of agency-approved projects that faced serious issues, and 14 projects were temporarily or permanently halted. Other projects resulted in significant overbuilding, meaning there was taxpayer-funded construction of additional broadband infrastructure in areas that already had access to reliable internet.

Every federal dollar that has been spent should go toward its stated purpose: expanding connectivity to truly unserved areas. Without stringent oversight, I’m concerned NTIA and other federal agencies will repeat past mistakes with this recent influx of broadband funding, which is why I recently launched a nationwide oversight initiative to review federal broadband programs. As part of this effort, I’ll gather input from a diverse group of stakeholders and, if change is needed, we will get to work to make sure these programs are effective and efficient.

In addition to improving federal programs, I believe we need to recognize that the federal government will not solve the digital divide on its own. The United States’ light-touch regulatory approach to broadband policy has resulted in telecommunications providers in South Dakota and the rest of the country making network reliability, affordability, and resiliency a priority. During the pandemic, when demand for reliable internet soared, U.S. broadband providers were able to keep Americans connected, which was not the case in other countries.

We also need to continue making improvements to permitting for broadband infrastructure. My MOBILE NOW Act, which became law in 2018, helped move the federal government in the right direction, but there continue to be unnecessary delays and costs associated with permitting that get in the way of expanding internet access. A key part of my oversight effort is holding federal agencies accountable for implementing these permitting improvements so that construction can get underway and move forward without unnecessary delay.

For too long, we have talked about closing the digital divide, and it’s time to actually get it done. The best way to achieve this is by ensuring the funding and programs that Congress has already put in place actually go toward expanding internet access to areas that currently lack it. Anything short of a robust accountability effort risks leaving taxpayer dollars wasted and Americans still disconnected.

—U.S. Sen. John Thune is a South Dakota Republican and a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.