Obama Order Ties Broadband Expansion to Infrastructure

220px Official Portrait Of Barack Obama

President Barack Obama signed an executive order June 14 aiming to expand internet access to underserved areas by making broadband expansion cheaper and easier on federal property. Government agencies that manage these federal assets -- including the country’s roadways and more than 10,000 buildings -- will adopt a uniform approach to allow broadband companies to conduct rollouts around the United States.

Too many Americans lack access to even basic internet service and the move may boost government efforts to encourage companies to expand high speed internet service to underserved areas. The National Broadband Plan and subsequent reports from the Federal Communications Commission have highlighted that about one-third of Americans do not subscribe to broadband internet service. The U.S. ranked 15th among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries with 68.2 percent of households possessing access to broadband, according to 2011 data. Access to these networks provides businesses, consumers, and organizations the ability to connect and thrive in the internet economy, creating jobs and new opportunities in the process.

Why connect deployments to federal properties? The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Commerce were allocated $7.2 billion in stimulus funds to expand broadband to underserved areas. Almost four years on, USDA has only paid out about $648 million of its $2.23 billion share of stimulus dollars devoted to the “Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program,” according to data reported on recovery.gov.

Congress noticed the lag and demanded answers from the agency about the delay, requiring that misspent or fraudulent contracts be returned to the U.S. Treasury. The problem, however, wasn’t federal government mismanagement necessarily, rather the process of bidding and awarding contracts and the seasonal nature of construction, facing build-out challenges in the winter months.

The uniform approach may increase incentives for service providers to reach new customers, literally breaking ground for projects that would otherwise go unexecuted. The President’s announcement is a promising indicator of the administration’s willingness to cut through red tape and make good on promises to improve broadband access across the United States.