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Measuring Broadband Funding: A New GAO Report

As the federal government hands out money to states and localities for broadband services (and other infrastructure as well), one question has been in the back of our minds: How well are the feds measuring the performance of these investments.

We got a partial answer earlier today, with the release of a Government Accountability Office report, that makes it clear that the answer is sometimes “not well enough.”

The report focused on the work of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which manages two grant programs that work to expand broadband access. As of September 2022, it had announced about $1 billion worth of grants awarded.

But, reported the GAO, both of the programs fall short of the basic standards for

good performance measurement.

For example, the NTIA set a goal for its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) to extend affordable broadband to 200,000 households, but the performance goal and measures “do not reflect the primary function of the program, funding broadband use and adoption projects.”

To our minds, this is a critical shortcoming. It’s not very useful to create goals and measures that aren’t pertinent to the central functions of any program. This is kind of like an archer who keeps aiming for the bullseye – but isn’t looking at the right target in the first place. The archer may feel good about himself, but he’s never going to win a competition.

Moreover, the report pointed out that NTIA's goals for both the TBCP and the larger Broadband Infrastructure Program, included terms such as “reliable” and “affordable” that are not defined and therefore are not fully quantifiable. Wrote the GAO, “NTIA officials said that the agency was still developing goals and measures. Without comprehensive goals and measures, NTIA will be unable to track its progress.”

This sounds very familiar to us. Over the course of time, we’ve heard repeated complaints – often in performance audits – that terms being measured are not well defined, and as a result, the measurements may have minimal value.

To be fair, the GAO had some positive things to say, as well, about performance measurements and the NTIA grants. Notably, for both grant programs, “The performance goal and measure reflect what is to be observed without significant bias or manipulation.” Given the large amounts of money being delivered here, there could easily be a temptation to stack the deck, and the assurance that hasn’t happened is good news indeed.


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