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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Daily Report: Where the Broadband Roams

In Tuesday’s New York Times, Edward Wyatt reports from Agate, Colo., on the $4 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, part of the Obama administration’s 2009 economic stimulus effort. The aim of the grant program is to extend high-speed Internet access to parts of the country that had little or none of it because private companies said it was too expensive to build.

But local phone companies have complained about waste or unfair competition, like using some of the grants to build fiber networks where they already exist â€" including, in Colorado, in the easily accessible eastern plains that include Agate â€" rather than where they are most needed, in rural mountain towns.

Nationally, $594 million in spending has been temporarily or permanently halted, 14 percent of the overall program, and the Commerce Department’s inspector general hs raised questions about the program’s ability to adequately monitor spending of the more than 230 grants.

In Illinois, for example, a $12 million broadband grant was sanctioned when a subcontractor was caught routing fiber optic cable through neighborhoods where its project engineers lived. A $39 million grant in Arizona was suspended over questionable expenditures on travel, transactions that appeared to involve conflicts of interest and other unbudgeted activities.

In Agate, two high-speed connections already existed in a school that had been teaching students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Now the oldest students are fifth graders, and the school says the high-speed fiber optic service is of little use and beyond its means. It has requested bids for a slower-speed connection to replace it.

Agate’s third fiber optic connection was among the projects built with funds from a $100 million grant to an education consortium called Eagle-Net. The grant has been suspended sin! ce December, when officials discovered that Eagle-Net had changed nearly all of its plans for wiring the state. Four months earlier, Eagle-Net was warned about questionable spending and lack of budgetary controls, according to Commerce Department documents.