Lawmakers tell agencies to return unused broadband funds

A House subcommittee approves legislation to take back money

A U.S. Congress subcommittee has approved a bill requiring two government agencies to return any unused money from broadband deployment programs that were part of a huge 2009 economic stimulus package.

The Republican-pushed legislation, approved by voice vote Friday by the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee's communications subcommittee, would require the two agencies administering broadband stimulus funding to return any money from projects canceled by the recipients or by the agencies because of waste, fraud or misuse of funds.

But the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Rural Utilities Service (RUS) are already returning the unused funds, administrators at both agencies said. Some Democrats on the subcommittee questioned the need for the legislation and suggested the subcommittee had more important issues to tackle, including finding more spectrum for mobile broadband services.

"I do, with all due respect, think it's a waste of time," said Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat.

Recipients for 13 broadband projects, with funding totaling about US$70 million, have returned the money or have been asked by the agencies to return the money, according to lawmakers and the agencies. In every case, the money has gone or will go back to the U.S. treasury, said Larry Strickling, the NTIA's administrator.

But the bill is needed because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which allocated about $7 billion for broadband deployment and related programs, does not require the agencies to return the money, said Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and subcommittee chairman. Even if the two agencies are currently returning the funds, their policies could change, he said.

The bill, which now goes to the full committee, would make it clear that the funds must be returned, Walden added.

The bill also requires funds to be returned in the case of "insufficient level of performance, wasteful spending, or fraudulent spending." The bill would require the two agencies to shut down funding for projects that are in the process of being terminated, and it would require the agencies to return the funds to the treasury within 30 days of terminating a project.

The bill is "modest, but necessary," Walden said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentbroadbandtelecommunicationU.S. National Telecommunications and Information AdministrationU.S. Rural Utilities Service

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