Once upon a time, the government decided to pass a giant stimulus. It had a noble goal of creating jobs, stimulating the economy, and upgrading necessary infrastructure all at the same time. But when the government starts handing out money, people start lining up to take it.
In 2010, West Virginia received a “$126 million federal stimulus grant to expand high-speed Internet” across the state. They decided to spend about $24 million buying fancy Cicso routers for schools and libraries that cost $22,000 each. These high-end routers were built to serve college campuses handling hundreds or thousands of computers, but many of them are being put in small rural buildings with less than five computers – even some that have “just one computer terminal.”
A Cisco representative told the local paper that the model is “overkill” for most schools and libraries (quite an understatement), recommending a smaller router costing $487. West Virginia Homeland Security Chief (yes, they are involved in this) said they bought the same router model for everyone because “a student in a school of 200 students should have the same opportunity as a student in a school with 2,000 student.”
Apparently this state official thinks cheaper routers hold less opportunity per student. By that logic, they should also be putting in thousands of parking spaces around these tiny schools. After all, don’t want to limit the opportunity to park. Better build ten-lane roads to get to every school in the state. After all, they might need it one day. Better build a room full of ovens to cook pizzas every day. After all… well, you get the point.
Some have tried to defend this decision by saying that this leaves room to handle uncertain future bandwidth needs as technology increases and communities expand in size. But I’m not convinced; if the small buildings ever actually need the power of a large business router in ten years, then the larger buildings will surely need something way bigger, yet the state doesn’t seem to care about leaving them that much breathing room. Besides, a lot of those communities probably won’t need anything that huge in the next decade, and by the time they do, the $500 routers of the future might be able to handle them anyway.
No, this was just a classic case of the government pouring out money so fast that it sloshed around and got wasted. And the more I learn, the worse it gets. The money wasn’t even supposed to be used to buy routers in the first place. “The grant was not an equipment grant. It was to build fiber.” And over 300 of the routers are still sitting in boxes, having already wasted two years of their five-year warranties. Ars Technica has links to more stories and details, including a frustrating tangential list of expensive TSA equipment also sitting in storage.
I would like to think that this is just an isolated story of inadvertent mismanagement, and that most of the government’s hundreds of billions of dollars of stimulus were spent very carefully and efficiently. But I’m pretty doubtful. When you give someone the incentive to spend lots of money on fancy stuff they don’t need, they will usually end up spending lots of money on fancy stuff they don’t need.
At least we have the Internet to learn about these abuses. Of course, I’m sure I could learn even more about them if only I was surfing with a $22,000 Cisco 3945…