Challenges of providing service
Broadband is critical for economic, educational, and personal uses. Industry and federal investments have made broadband available to the vast majority of Americans. For example, FCC’s high-cost program provides funding to broadband providers to deploy broadband in rural, insular, and high-cost areas. However, some rural areas continue to lack access due, in part, to challenges with providing service to areas where deployment costs are high and returns on investment are low. GAO was asked to examine the current state of broadband investment and deployment.
Insufficient transparency and accountability in reporting
FCC deployment data. In 2014, we examined FCC’s efforts to reform its high-cost program and the extent to which FCC was collecting data to determine the effectiveness of these reforms, among other objectives. We identified gaps in FCC’s data analysis and reporting, including a lack of transparency and accountability of spending. We recommended that FCC analyze how it uses its high-cost program funding and make that analysis publicly available at least annually. FCC has taken action to implement our recommendation to address the lack of transparency and accountability of spending. In 2018, we reviewed data that FCC collected from providers to describe the locations of existing broadband infrastructure and help federal programs identify unserved and underserved areas to target for federal funding. We found that these data overstated broadband access, especially in tribal lands, and recommended that FCC take actions to improve these data. FCC concurred with the recommendations and has begun taking action, but the agency has not yet fully implemented any of the report’s three recommendations.
Strategy to be reviewed
Broadband adoption. In 2015, we stated that adopting broadband at home can provide a number of benefits, including access to employment opportunities (searching for and applying to jobs); education (research, web-based learning, and homework); and services for economic and social gain (such as telemedicine and entertainment). We reviewed federal efforts to address broadband adoption barriers that consumers face and recommended that FCC revise its strategic plan to more clearly state if broadband adoption is a priority, and if so, what outcomes FCC intends to achieve, action that the agency took the following year. We also recommended that NTIA include performance metrics for the agency’s broadband adoption efforts in its annual performance plan. Both FCC and NTIA implemented these recommendations.
Competition needs promotion
Broadband competition. In 2017, we found that infrastructure costs and other factors can affect competition among broadband providers. Such costs can limit competition in urban areas but more significantly limit competition in non-urban and less populated areas. We made two recommendations to FCC to solicit and report on the views of stakeholders regarding: (1) how well FCC’s programs promote broadband competition and (2) how varying levels of broadband deployment affect broadband prices and service quality. In response, FCC implemented these recommendations by soliciting public comments in July 2018 to seek feedback on the effectiveness of its actions addressing competition among broadband providers and on how varying levels of broadband deployment affect prices and service quality. In December 2018, FCC reported comments that it had received from this solicitation in the first version of a biennial report on the broadband market. In May 2019, FCC also reported stakeholder comments related to the agency’s broadband deployment data, including service quality data.
Fraud risk in the high-cost program
GAO, Telecommunications: Projects and Policies Related to Deploying Broadband in Unserved and Underserved Areas, GAO-14-409 (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 23, 2014). More recently, we also examined fraud risks in the high-cost program and recommended that FCC implement an anti-fraud strategy for the program, among other things, see GAO, Telecommunications: FCC Should Take Additional Action to Manage Fraud Risks in Its Program to Support Broadband Service in High-Cost Areas, GAO-20-27 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 23, 2019).
This report examines (1) industry and federal investments to deploy broadband in the United States since 2009, and (2) efforts federal agencies are making to address deployment challenges. GAO analyzed industry and federal government data from 2009 through 2017 or 2018 (the most recent year of available data) on broadband investments and deployment; reviewed statutes and regulations, rulemaking proceedings, and FCC, RUS, and NTIA program information; interviewed federal officials; and obtained information about deployment challenges from interviews with 32 industry, academic, and consumer stakeholders, including 16 broadband providers selected to represent a range of provider sizes and types of technologies.