Government spending watchdog takes on $40B-plus broadband rollout

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Federal officials should avoid fixating on fiber cable when expanding internet infrastructure around the country, according to the leader of a new initiative promoting prudent use of government funding for internet broadband.

Deborah Collier has led the conservative think tank Citizens Against Government Waste’s technology policy endeavors for many years. Now, she’s leading the organization’s newly founded Innovation and Technology Policy Center in an attempt to adapt to the growing need for technology-related regulations and legislation. One major improvement that Collier has encouraged is expanding internet access options besides cable broadband.

“There seems to be a penchant in this nation or in this current administration to promote one technology, and when it comes to the internet, that’s fiber cables connected to the home,” Collier told the Washington Examiner. She pointed out that although fiber cables can be a powerful tool for connecting users to the internet, they are not always applicable in every state. For example, a fiber-based internet connection would be more expensive in a mountainous state like Montana or a rural, spread-out state like Wyoming.

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in November 2021 contains more than $40 billion dedicated to expanding broadband access, including funding for areas that lack access to the internet.

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Collier noted that many options are available to Americans, including mobile broadband, wireless broadband, satellite connections, and even the use of “TV white space,” or the unused spectrums between TV stations, to get users connected to the internet. She also said that federal and state regulators should choose what they provide based on several factors, including established networks and their environment.

She points out that this fixation on installing fiber can often discourage innovation in the market. “When you’re pressing a technology or even saying it must be this type of technology, you discount any innovation in the space that may come in the future,” Collier said. “A technology may be in development that will come at a lower price for the taxpayers. But if you’ve already said it must be this one technology, then you’ve set it in stone.”

This is also a problem when it comes to states installing IT systems into state or federal government infrastructure. A state may prefer certain vendors, only to ignore cheaper and better options on the matter, potentially costing it more than needed. “You need to take a technology- and vendor-neutral approach to procurement opportunities,” Collier offered as advice to government administrators. “And that will enable the best solution at the lowest possible price to serve your mission.”

These sorts of policy issues have been the focus for Collier since she moved to Washington in the 1980s. Collier originally worked in the office of Rep. Clarence Miller (R-OH) and spent more than 30 years in Congress across several offices, including the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. She joined CAGW in 2011 as the director of technology and telecommunications policy and has helped lead the organization’s efforts to “eliminate waste, mismanagement, and inefficiency in government.”

While CAGW has dealt with technology policy for decades, The ITPC will allow the organization to focus and fixate its efforts on the various tech issues that Congress and the White House face. The Center will “promote and protect American ingenuity and innovation, which was set in motion through the protection of intellectual property in the Constitution,” according to its press release.

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While the organization expressed an interest in everything from aerospace development to patent law, Collier is also keeping an eye on the future. “One of the really wonderful things about innovation is that it’s constantly changing the future. So we don’t know what the next great thing is going to be tomorrow. We could be looking at AI, we could be looking at virtual reality. You know, there’s a number of issues surrounding each of those,” she said.

CAGW was founded in 1984 by businessman J. Peter Grace and columnist Jack Anderson and is considered the legacy of former President Ronald Reagan’s Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, or Grace Commission. The organization regularly releases reports on excess government spending, as well as recommendations for how to improve the use of government expenditures. The organization has also expressed support for the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, which would provide a national framework for privacy policies.