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Questions prompt strong defense of broadband program

A Democrat on the Senate Small Business Committee raised concerns on Tuesday that federal regulators are wasting taxpayer dollars by funding duplicative broadband infrastructure projects as part of the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus program.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., also pressed the heads of agencies within the Agriculture and Commerce departments on whether their awarding of grants to bring high-speed Internet service to certain parts of the country may have driven up commercial broadband deployment costs in some markets.

Lawrence Strickling, an assistant Commerce secretary who directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, responded by saying any claims that duplication exists are "not serious objections."

Strickling said his agency uses data on broadband penetration and speeds when choosing where to allot money, arguing that the need for broadband spending may not be apparent in certain areas where consumers have strong Internet connections in their homes but anchor institutions, including hospitals and schools, continue to lack the necessary infrastructure.

Jonathan Adelstein, head of USDA's Rural Utilities Service, echoed this view. "There has not been one example of overbuilding," he said, noting that his program focuses on building the "last mile" of connectivity while NTIA targets the middle mile.

Republican lawmakers, including House Energy and Commerce Communications Subcommittee ranking member Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., have singled out the broadband stimulus program in recent weeks to spotlight instances of inefficient spending.

"In north Georgia, NTIA awarded a $33.5 million grant to an area that already has extensive broadband service," Stearns said at a hearing last month.

At Tuesday's hearing, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski defended the government's role in expanding broadband service across the country. "It is vital to ensure that small businesses have robust and affordable access to broadband communications," he said.

But, he said, "too many small businesses . . . still do not have access to high-speed broadband infrastructure at all."

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