3:53pm

Wed February 27, 2013
Business

Gardner Hammers Agency Tasked with Broadband Oversight

A Colorado broadband project funded with a $100 million stimulus grant was front-and-center in a federal oversight hearing Wednesday.

Grace Hood reports for All Things Considered.

The Colorado EAGLE-Net Alliance was tasked with building a broadband network connecting 234 libraries and schools across the state. But critics say the effort has fallen far short of its goals—wasting millions on redundant fiber optic connections.

Republicans on the Subcommittee of Communications and Technology raised pointed questions about the project, which is part of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.

“It’s a simple question are you laying fiber where existing fiber exists?” asked 4th Congressional District Republican Representative Cory Gardner.

“That’s not necessarily overbuilding,” countered Lawrence Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The NTIA is the agency responsible for overseeing EAGLE-Net and 230 other broadband projects across the country funded with billions of dollars in stimulus funds.

But the Colorado project has become emblematic of what could potentially go wrong. On Wednesday Strickling explained the project is currently suspended—not necessarily for bad reasons.

“…they wanted to take advantage of the economies of using fiber where originally they had proposed using microwave. This is a good change, because this means that they’ll be able to have greater capacity than they otherwise would have.”

The issue now is that EAGLE-Net failed to comply with requirements for environmental permits to complete the project. EAGLE-Net officials weren’t at Wednesday’s meeting and were unavailable for comment via phone. This week they said they’re working to get the suspension lifted in the next 30 days.

Ultimately, it’s the idea of moving forward that 1st Congressional District Democratic Representative Diana DeGette suggested to the NTIA.

“As a senior member of this committee I’ll make you the offer, and I will make Mr. Gardner the offer, I would be happy to sit down on a bi-partisan basis with him and your office and see if we can make peace in Colorado,” she said.

But scrutiny is unlikely to die down in the near term.

At the state Capitol in Colorado, legislators scrutinized earlier this week how EAGLE-Net has spent millions in stimulus funds, and another $35 million in matching in-kind donations. According to the Denver Post, EAGLE-Net has spent the majority of its stimulus funds while reaching less than one quarter of intended educational institutions.

The project is being required to submit a financial audit to the state by the end of March.