Texas broadband RFI could prove problematic

The state of Texas is looking to gather some information about implementing a broadband Internet initiative statewide. The Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas Public Utility Commission issued a request for information (RFI) yesterday to extend broadband connectivity to areas of the state currently unserved and underserved. But, Texas does not have a good track record of insuring funds get to those unserved and underserved.

The Agriculture Department will seek grants from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and / or the Rural Utilities Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, the RFI says. The state hopes to secure funds for statewide mapping and “possibly also for broadband service delivery expansion into more underserved and underserved areas of the state.”

The bulk of the RFI requirements are directed at expanding broadband’s reach to more Texans, from identifying areas with low levels of deployment to identifying barriers to adoption. Part six of the RFI seeks for applicants to establish plans “to work collaboratively with broadband service providers and information technology companies to encourage deployment and use, especially in unserved areas and areas in which broadband penetration is significantly below the national average, through the use of local demand aggregation, mapping analysis, and the creation of market intelligence to improve the business case for providers to deploy.” But the program may be plagued by past missteps.

Texas, in particular, was recently cited as a case where funds distributed by the Rural Utilities Services did not go to the kinds of rural and underserved areas they were intended. Pro Publica reported earlier this April about a RUS audit that found continuing problems stemming from an earlier audit conducted in 2005. According to the 2005 report, (.pdf) RUS issued over $103.4 million in loans to 64 communities near large cities, including $45.6 million to 19 subdivisions near Houston. One of the suburbs was “built around a golf course and another outside one of the richest cities in Texas,” the Pro Public piece said. What’s perhaps more disturbing is that the report found problems like this were systemic. The report goes on to say, “The loan program’s lack of focus on rural communities without preexisting service has been paralleled by RUS’ continuing need to create a management structure able to make necessary judgments for a program of this size and scope.”

And what the most recent audit (.pdf) finds is not much more encouraging: “We remain concerned with RUS’ current direction of the Broadband program, particularly as they receive greater funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, including its provisions for transparency and accountability.” Particularly troubling for Texas in this case, is that auditors feel uncomfortable with giving RUS jurisdiction to award funds “to projects that provide service to the most rural residents that do not have access to broadband service.”

Anyone hoping to respond to the Texas RFI must do so by May 15, 2009. The Recovery Act provides $7.2 billion for broadband infrastructure projects, and funds are expected to begin rolling out by early summer. See, “Mapping among a host of issues facing broadband projects” for more on how state and federal officials are ironing out the details.