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More quantifiable performance goals would help the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program better track internet adoption, GAO said.
The federal program that aims to expand broadband access on tribal lands must better define its performance measures so it can assess its effectiveness, according to a report issued last week.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) is a $980 million initiative to fund broadband deployment on tribal lands and support “telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability, and digital inclusion,” according to the grant program’s website.
More quantifiable performance goals would allow TBCP to measure its effectiveness at rolling out reliable, affordable broadband to 200,000 households on tribal lands, according to the Government Accountability Office.
GAO found that NTIA did not define the terms “reliable” and “affordable,” so is not able to track its progress toward its deployment goal and fully quantify it. Auditors also said NTIA did not set goals related to funding broadband use and adoption projects, which it previously defined as a key function of the program.
In announcements of new grant awards to tribal lands under the grant program, Biden administration officials like Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have lauded the TBCP’s “historic and unprecedented commitment to close the digital divide” on tribal lands.
But experts have noted previously that the federal government has much work ahead as it seeks to better understand the connectivity challenges on tribal lands. That lack of understanding was further magnified by the recent release of the Federal Communications Commission’s first round of broadband maps, which were criticized for not sufficiently reflecting the on-the-ground reality in tribal lands.
The need to better understand connectivity on tribal lands may require states to play a more leading role, said Sharayah Lane, senior advisor for indigenous community connectivity at the nonprofit Internet Society. She said leaders at the state, local and federal levels are waking up to the need to “work together in ways that we never have before to be able to solve this problem” and “change the dynamic of states and tribes” to be more cooperative.
GAO also criticized NTIA for taking longer than anticipated to announce TBCP grant awards. The administration had expected decisions in November 2021, but as of September 2022, GAO noted the program was still announcing awards on a rolling basis.
In response, NTIA officials said the grant program received more applications than expected, more than three-quarters of which needed to be returned to applicants for additional information.
Tribes need more help gathering the necessary information to help them be more competitive for grants, according to Joe Valandra, president and CEO of Tribal Ready and part of a group of advocates working with broadband grant matchmaker Broadband.Money to stand up what they are calling the first-ever “Virtual Tribal Broadband Office.”
That help will be especially important because in June NTIA will communicate BEAD program allocations, and tribes could be entitled to billions more in funding if their applications are up to snuff, Valandra said previously. With states given latitude on how to roll out their grant funds, Valandra said tribes must have assistance to “gather the information and to put together the packages of information to impact state broadband allocations.”
GAO also raised concerns about the potential for fraud in NTIA’s grant programs for tribal lands. For the TBCP effort, GAO said not conducting a fraud risk assessment was a mistake on NTIA’s part. Without a designated entity to oversee fraud risk, GAO said the administration is not assured of being “sufficiently positioned to combat fraud.”