Washington Watchdog: $14M Wasted on Broadband Effort in W.Va. Alone

To ensure the United States remained competitive economically, the government came up with $7 billion in 2009 to spread broadband across the country and hook up thousands of communities.

In February, Larry Strickling, an administrator with the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, testified on Capitol Hill, lauding the program for deploying more than 86,000 miles of broadband structure, building 12,000 connections for schools and libraries, and generating more than 500,000 new broadband subscribers.

“The vast majority of our projects have performed well,” he told ABC News after the hearing. “We are quite happy with the program.”

But in one West Virginia closet, stacks of high-speed routers sat unused, paid for by U.S. taxpayers at the tune of $20,000 a piece – in part because the state bought too many of the wrong routers. In that closet sits $1.25 million in routers – equal to a year’s pay for 30 teachers – gathering dust for nearly three years.

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“It’s the people’s dollars that we’re dealing with,” Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., told ABC News. “None of it should be wasted. And in this case, it’s obscene.”

In West Virginia alone, $14 million has been wasted, according to the state auditor.

Critics said they are concerned about where the money was spent.

For example, some of the routers were used. But while the small community library in Shepherdstown, W.Va. – which sees fewer than 5,000 annual visitors – got them, two local high schools just a couple of miles away did not.

In Gardner’s state, he said, a high school in the southeast with a graduating class of one had three fiber optic lines laid to it. Now congressional investigators are questioning whether as much as $230 million was wasted.

“We have tremendous waste going on,” Gardner said. “I think [the program] hasn’t had the proper oversight.”

Despite being grilled by members of Congress during the February hearing about waste in the broadband stimulus project, Strickling defended their results.

He testified that there have been issues with some of the programs.

“As with any program of this size and complexity, we have had cases where intervention by us was necessary,” he told a congressional committee. “Fortunately, because we work hard to identify  issues as early as possible, we have been able to get projects back on track. … I am pleased to report that our broadband efforts are delivering substantial and meaningful benefits across the country.”

Although others have been suspended previously, the NTIA says two programs are currently on suspension, two  have been terminated and four recipients voluntarily returned their awards in the very early stages, spending less than $50,000.

“I think they wasted money through a lack of oversight. They wasted money by duplicated services that already exist. They wasted money by not going into places that truly needed it,” Gardner said. “That’s waste and that’s abuse of this program.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated Sept. 6, 2013, to reflect additional comments from NTIA.

This story was previously updated to correct the attribution of a quote by Larry Strickling.

An earlier version incorrectly identified his second statement as having been made directly to ABC News, when in fact it was part of his testimony before a congressional committee.
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