Members of the House of Representatives had harsh words for broadband stimulus projects in West Virginia and Colorado – and in some cases for the entire stimulus program — at a hearing today titled “Is the Broadband Stimulus Working?”
Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which awarded the grants, defended the agency’s decisions.
The two projects that were hotly discussed included statewide Colorado network EagleNet, which won a $100 million middle mile infrastructure grant, and a West Virginia project that won a computing center award.
Colorado Congressman Cory Gardner expressed anger that the EagleNet project focused initially on eastern parts of the state that are less costly to serve rather than on more mountainous western areas where the network has not yet been constructed and where he said the need is greater. He also called into question whether that part of the network would ever be completed and noted that several small telcos operating in rural Colorado have complained that some EagleNet routes duplicate infrastructure that was previously deployed.
Strickling argued that building new fiber on routes that already have connectivity is not necessarily a bad thing. He suggested that in some cases network overbuilds might help ensure that network operators will be able to meet anticipated huge growth in Internet bandwidth requirements.
“There is a huge advantage to having K through 12 schools on a single network,” added Strickling. “There are speed, security and application advantages.”
Strickling suggested that small telcos have complained about the project because they lost out on a bid to construct part of the network.
“A group of companies lost the bid; then we started to hear about overbuilding,” said Strickling. He added, however, that he hopes a solution can be found that will be agreeable to those who have complained about EagleNet. “We would like to accommodate everyone, including the unsuccessful bidders,” he said.
The West Virginia project came under scrutiny because critics said the enterprise grade Cisco router installed in a library in a town of 1500 was too large and too costly. Strickling noted that Cisco provided the purchaser with 100 free routers and when that was taken into consideration, the cost of the router in question was comparable with the cost of a smaller router. He also noted that the library that received the router is scheduled to be expanded and will need more capacity than it needs currently.
California Representative Anna Eshoo, whose district includes Silicon Valley, said she had spoken to the supplier (i.e., Cisco) and that the company would make a refund if appropriate, but that it wasn’t clear that a refund was appropriate.
Much of the discussion at today’s meeting was highly partisan in nature and served primarily as an avenue for legislator grandstanding.
Oregon Representative Greg Walden, chairman of the communications and technology subcommittee, set the tone when he kicked off the meeting by stating “At a time when President Obama and his administration are threatening to lay off meat inspectors, FAA controllers, TSA agents, throw Head Start students out of class and cut teachers as the best way to deal with the sequester, our subcommittee will look at how parts of the Obama administration have allowed millions – perhaps hundreds of millions – of dollars in overspending, overbuilding and waste in their rush to spend the seven billion dollars in broadband stimulus money.”
In an apparent reference to the West Virginia project, he also noted that “the Obama administration’s priority was to fund routers designed to support more than 200 simultaneous users to a library housed in a single-wide trailer with just one Internet connection.”
In her rebuttal, minority leader of the subcommittee Eshoo said “With all due respect President Obama is not the purchasing agent for the project.”
She also questioned Walden’s allusion to hundreds of millions of broadband stimulus dollars being wasted. She noted, for example, that projects valued at about $200 million that previously were suspended have since been put “back on track.”
While noting that complaints should be addressed, she said “the solution isn’t to attack the overall merits of the program.”
Texas Representative Joe Barton did just that, however, suggesting that broadband stimulus dollars that have not yet been spent should be rescinded – and I suspect Telecompetitor readers will have something to say about the reasoning behind his suggestion.
“When 96% [of the population] have broadband why do we need the program?” he asked. “We don’t need the program. We could have set up a voucher system for people who really needed it.”