Saturday, July 13, 2024

Audit finds some rural broadband providers might not meet federal deadlines

by BIZ Magazine

The Center Square) – A report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office found that some broadband providers extending service to unserved or underserved areas might not meet federal deadlines.

The report by Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack’s office said that as of December 2023, three of 12 providers were still in the planning stage and only 14,500 of 146,203 locations funded by the The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund had broadband access. That’s nearly 10% of awarded locations.

Under Federal Communications Commission regulations, a federally-funded broadband project must provide broadband service to 40% of their awarded locations within three years.

Three providers have a December deadline to extend service for 40% of their awarded locations, with the rest having a deadline of December 2025.

Auditors also said that in March, most of the Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities 1.0 program’s projects were in the planning and execution stages. The state’s broadband office, ConnectLA, says in the report that 12,245 of the 66,351 obligated GUMBO 1.0 sites had service as of March.

Auditors recommended that the Louisiana Public Service Commission improve its oversight of broadband providers participating in the program to ensure they comply with commission orders. They also recommended that they review all project information before annual certification for providers.

The state’s federally-funded broadband program is intended to extend broadband service to primarily rural, unserved or underserved communities. State officials say there are 656,000 homes and businesses without high-speed internet, 460,000 working-age adults without adequate digital skills and 137,000 households without digital devices.

Providers can compete to extend service to a new area during a series of auctions for the grants. The grants are funded by three federal grant programs: Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the American Rescue Plan Act Capital Projects Fund and the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program.

The BEAD program is the largest of the grant programs, with $1.36 billion in grants awarded to Louisiana, followed by the RDOF ($315 million) and ARPA ($131.4 million).

Auditors said issues with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund could reduce the number of communities receiving broadband service since any location subject to a federal grant, regardless of whether a network was built, wouldn’t be eligible for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program funding.

The Public Service Commission said in a response to the audit that its jurisdiction over broadband providers was narrow and also blamed the departure of two staffers handling a pair of dockets from the RDOF program for delays. The commission says it will address by moving many of these functions from its legal department to its utilities department.

In a response letter, ConnectLA Executive Director Veneeth Iyengar said that his office got awards from the free-market American Enterprise Institute for its commitment to “transparency, accountability and competition for our grant dollars.” He also said ConnectLA was recognized by the federal Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth for its excellence and transparency in bridging the digital divide.

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