January 22, 2022

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5G Wireless: Capabilities and Challenges for an Evolving Network

13 min read
<div>Fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks promise to provide significantly greater speeds and higher capacity to accommodate more devices. In addition, 5G networks are expected to be more flexible, reliable, and secure than existing cellular networks. The figure compares 4G and 5G performance goals along three of several performance measures. Note: Megabits per second (Mbps) is a measure of the rate at which data is transmitted, milliseconds (ms) is a measure of time equal to one thousandth of a second, and square kilometer (km²) is a measure of area. As with previous generations of mobile wireless technology, the full performance of 5G will be achieved gradually as networks evolve over the next decade. Deployment of 5G network technologies in the U.S. began in late 2018, and these initial 5G networks focus on enhancing mobile broadband. These deployments are dependent on the existing 4G core network and, in many areas, produced only modest performance improvements. To reach the full potential of 5G, new technologies will need to be developed. International bodies that have been involved in defining 5G network specifications will need to develop additional 5G specifications and companies will need to develop, test, and deploy these technologies. GAO identified the following challenges that can hinder the performance or usage of 5G technologies in the U.S. GAO developed six policy options in response to these challenges, including the status quo. They are presented with associated opportunities and considerations in the following table. The policy options are directed toward the challenges detailed in this report: spectrum sharing, cybersecurity, privacy, and concern over possible health effects of 5G technology. Policy options to address challenges to the performance or usage of U.S. 5G wireless networks Policy Option Opportunities Considerations Spectrum-sharing technologies (report p. 47) Policymakers could support research and development of spectrum sharing technologies. Could allow for more efficient use of the limited spectrum available for 5G and future generations of wireless networks. It may be possible to leverage existing 5G testbeds for testing the spectrum sharing technologies developed through applied research. Research and development is costly, must be coordinated and administered, and its potential benefits are uncertain. Identifying a funding source, setting up the funding mechanism, or determining which existing funding streams to reallocate will require detailed analysis. Coordinated cybersecurity monitoring (report p. 48) Policymakers could support nationwide, coordinated cybersecurity monitoring of 5G networks. A coordinated monitoring program would help ensure the entire wireless ecosystem stays knowledgeable about evolving threats, in close to real time; identify cybersecurity risks; and allow stakeholders to act rapidly in response to emerging threats or actual network attacks. Carriers may not be comfortable reporting incidents or vulnerabilities, and determinations would need to be made about what information is disclosed and how the information will be used and reported. Cybersecurity requirements (report p. 49) Policymakers could adopt cybersecurity requirements for 5G networks. Taking these steps could produce a more secure network. Without a baseline set of security requirements the implementation of network security practices is likely to be piecemeal and inconsistent. Using existing protocols or best practices may decrease the time and cost of developing and implementing requirements. Adopting network security requirements would be challenging, in part because defining and implementing the requirements would have to be done on an application-specific basis rather than as a one-size-fits-all approach. Designing a system to certify network components would be costly and would require a centralized entity, be it industry-led or government-led. Privacy practices (report p. 50) Policymakers could adopt uniform practices for 5G user data. Development and adoption of uniform privacy practices would benefit from existing privacy practices that have been implemented by states, other countries, or that have been developed by federal agencies or other organizations. Privacy practices come with costs, and policymakers would need to balance the need for privacy with the direct and indirect costs of implementing privacy requirements. Imposing requirements can be burdensome, especially for smaller entities. High-band research (report p. 51) Policymakers could promote R&D for high-band technology. Could result in improved statistical modeling of antenna characteristics and more accurately representing propagation characteristics. Could result in improved understanding of any possible health effects from long-term radio frequency exposure to high-band emissions. Research and development is costly and must be coordinated and administered, and its potential benefits are uncertain. Policymakers will need to identify a funding source or determine which existing funding streams to reallocate. Status quo (report p. 52) Some challenges described in this report may be addressed through current efforts. Some challenges described in this report may remain unresolved, be exacerbated, or take longer to resolve than with intervention. GAO was asked to assess the technologies associated with 5G and their implications. This report discusses (1) how the performance goals and expected uses are to be realized in U.S. 5G wireless networks, (2) the challenges that could affect the performance or usage of 5G wireless networks in the U.S., and (3) policy options to address these challenges. To address these objectives, GAO interviewed government officials, industry representatives, and researchers about the performance and usage of 5G wireless networks. This included officials from seven federal agencies; the four largest U.S. wireless carriers; an industry trade organization; two standards bodies; two policy organizations; nine other companies; four university research programs; the World Health Organization; the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements; and the chairman of the Defense Science Board's 5G task force. GAO reviewed technical studies, industry white papers, and policy papers identified through a literature review. GAO discussed the challenges to the performance or usage of 5G in the U.S. during its interviews and convened a one-and-a-half day meeting of 17 experts from academia, industry, and consumer groups with assistance from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. GAO received technical comments on a draft of this report from six federal agencies and nine participants at its expert meeting, which it incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Hai Tran at (202) 512-6888, tranh@gao.gov or Vijay A. D’Souza at (202) 512-6240, dsouzav@gao.gov.</div>

What GAO Found

Fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks promise to provide significantly greater speeds and higher capacity to accommodate more devices. In addition, 5G networks are expected to be more flexible, reliable, and secure than existing cellular networks. The figure compares 4G and 5G performance goals along three of several performance measures.

Note: Megabits per second (Mbps) is a measure of the rate at which data is transmitted, milliseconds (ms) is a measure of time equal to one thousandth of a second, and square kilometer (km²) is a measure of area.

As with previous generations of mobile wireless technology, the full performance of 5G will be achieved gradually as networks evolve over the next decade. Deployment of 5G network technologies in the U.S. began in late 2018, and these initial 5G networks focus on enhancing mobile broadband. These deployments are dependent on the existing 4G core network and, in many areas, produced only modest performance improvements. To reach the full potential of 5G, new technologies will need to be developed. International bodies that have been involved in defining 5G network specifications will need to develop additional 5G specifications and companies will need to develop, test, and deploy these technologies. GAO identified the following challenges that can hinder the performance or usage of 5G technologies in the U.S.

GAO developed six policy options in response to these challenges, including the status quo. They are presented with associated opportunities and considerations in the following table. The policy options are directed toward the challenges detailed in this report: spectrum sharing, cybersecurity, privacy, and concern over possible health effects of 5G technology.

Policy options to address challenges to the performance or usage of U.S. 5G wireless networks

Policy Option Opportunities Considerations

Spectrum-sharing technologies (report p. 47)

Policymakers could support research and development of spectrum sharing technologies.

  • Could allow for more efficient use of the limited spectrum available for 5G and future generations of wireless networks.
  • It may be possible to leverage existing 5G testbeds for testing the spectrum sharing technologies developed through applied research.
  • Research and development is costly, must be coordinated and administered, and its potential benefits are uncertain. Identifying a funding source, setting up the funding mechanism, or determining which existing funding streams to reallocate will require detailed analysis.

Coordinated cybersecurity monitoring (report p. 48)

Policymakers could support nationwide, coordinated cybersecurity monitoring of 5G networks.

  • A coordinated monitoring program would help ensure the entire wireless ecosystem stays knowledgeable about evolving threats, in close to real time; identify cybersecurity risks; and allow stakeholders to act rapidly in response to emerging threats or actual network attacks.
  • Carriers may not be comfortable reporting incidents or vulnerabilities, and determinations would need to be made about what information is disclosed and how the information will be used and reported.

Cybersecurity requirements (report p. 49)

Policymakers could adopt cybersecurity requirements for 5G networks.

  • Taking these steps could produce a more secure network. Without a baseline set of security requirements the implementation of network security practices is likely to be piecemeal and inconsistent.
  • Using existing protocols or best practices may decrease the time and cost of developing and implementing requirements.
  • Adopting network security requirements would be challenging, in part because defining and implementing the requirements would have to be done on an application-specific basis rather than as a one-size-fits-all approach.
  • Designing a system to certify network components would be costly and would require a centralized entity, be it industry-led or government-led.

Privacy practices (report p. 50)

Policymakers could adopt uniform practices for 5G user data.

  • Development and adoption of uniform privacy practices would benefit from existing privacy practices that have been implemented by states, other countries, or that have been developed by federal agencies or other organizations.
  • Privacy practices come with costs, and policymakers would need to balance the need for privacy with the direct and indirect costs of implementing privacy requirements. Imposing requirements can be burdensome, especially for smaller entities.

High-band research (report p. 51)

Policymakers could promote R&D for high-band technology.

  • Could result in improved statistical modeling of antenna characteristics and more accurately representing propagation characteristics.
  • Could result in improved understanding of any possible health effects from long-term radio frequency exposure to high-band emissions.
  • Research and development is costly and must be coordinated and administered, and its potential benefits are uncertain. Policymakers will need to identify a funding source or determine which existing funding streams to reallocate.
Status quo (report p. 52)
  • Some challenges described in this report may be addressed through current efforts.
  • Some challenges described in this report may remain unresolved, be exacerbated, or take longer to resolve than with intervention.

Why GAO Did This Study

GAO was asked to assess the technologies associated with 5G and their implications. This report discusses (1) how the performance goals and expected uses are to be realized in U.S. 5G wireless networks, (2) the challenges that could affect the performance or usage of 5G wireless networks in the U.S., and (3) policy options to address these challenges.

To address these objectives, GAO interviewed government officials, industry representatives, and researchers about the performance and usage of 5G wireless networks. This included officials from seven federal agencies; the four largest U.S. wireless carriers; an industry trade organization; two standards bodies; two policy organizations; nine other companies; four university research programs; the World Health Organization; the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements; and the chairman of the Defense Science Board’s 5G task force. GAO reviewed technical studies, industry white papers, and policy papers identified through a literature review. GAO discussed the challenges to the performance or usage of 5G in the U.S. during its interviews and convened a one-and-a-half day meeting of 17 experts from academia, industry, and consumer groups with assistance from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

GAO received technical comments on a draft of this report from six federal agencies and nine participants at its expert meeting, which it incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Hai Tran at (202) 512-6888, tranh@gao.gov or Vijay A. D’Souza at (202) 512-6240, dsouzav@gao.gov.

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    In U.S GAO News
    In 2013, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) introduced the concept of third party testing—having an independent testing entity verify that a security screening system meets certain requirements. The concept is that screening system vendors would take this additional step either prior to submitting their technologies to TSA or if their system failed TSA's test and evaluation process. The goal is for third party testing to reduce the time and resources that TSA spends on its own testing. However, since introduced, TSA has directed only three vendors that failed TSA tests to use third party testing, with varying outcomes. In two other cases, TSA supplemented its test capabilities by using third party testers to determine that systems installed at airports were working properly. TSA officials and industry representatives pointed to several reasons for third party testing's limited use since 2013, such as the cost to industry to use third party testers and TSA's reluctance to date to accept third party test data as an alternative to its own. Despite this, TSA officials told GAO they hope to use third party testing more in the future. For example, in recent announcements to evaluate and qualify new screening systems, TSA stated that it will require a system that fails TSA testing to go to a third party tester to address the identified issues (see figure). Example of Use of Third Party Testing When a System Experiences a Failure in TSA's Testing TSA set a goal in 2013 to increase screening technology testing efficiency. In addition, TSA reported to Congress in January 2020 that third party testing is a part of its efforts to increase supplier diversity and innovation. However, TSA has not established metrics to determine third party testing's contribution toward the goal of increasing efficiency. Further, GAO found no link between third party testing and supplier diversity and innovation. Some TSA officials and industry representatives also questioned third party testing's relevance to these efforts. Without metrics to measure and assess the extent to which third party testing increases testing efficiency, TSA will be unable to determine the value of this concept. Similarly, without assessing whether third party testing contributes to supplier diversity and innovation, TSA cannot know if third party testing activities are contributing to these goals as planned. TSA relies on technologies like imaging systems and explosives detection systems to screen passengers and baggage to prevent prohibited items from getting on board commercial aircraft. As part of its process of acquiring these systems and deploying them to airports, TSA tests the systems to ensure they meet requirements. The 2018 TSA Modernization Act contained a provision for GAO to review the third party testing program. GAO assessed the extent to which TSA (1) used third party testing, and (2) articulated its goals and developed metrics to measure the effects of third party testing. GAO reviewed TSA's strategic plans, acquisition guidance, program documentation, and testing policies. GAO interviewed officials from TSA's Test and Evaluation Division and acquisition programs, as well as representatives of vendors producing security screening systems and companies providing third party testing services. GAO is recommending that TSA develop metrics to measure the effects of third party testing on efficiency, assess its effects on efficiency, and assess whether third party testing contributes to supplier diversity and innovation. DHS concurred with GAO's three recommendations and has actions planned to address them. For more information, contact Marie A. Mak at (202) 512-4841 or MakM@gao.gov.
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  • Military Lodging: DOD Should Provide Congress with More Information on Army’s Privatization and Better Guidance to the Military Services
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Since privatizing its domestic on-base hotels, referred to as lodging, the Army has made a variety of improvements, including the replacement of lodging facilities with newly constructed hotels (see fig.). However, improvements have taken longer than initially anticipated, development plans have changed, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) has not included key information about these delays and changes in reports to Congress. If OSD were to provide this additional information, Congress would be better able to determine whether the Privatized Army Lodging (PAL) program has achieved its intended objectives or fully consider whether the other military services should privatize their respective lodging programs. Room at an Army Lodging Facility before Privatizing and Room at the New Candlewood Suites Hotel Built at Yuma Proving Ground, AZ, in 2013 The Army does not estimate cost savings from the PAL program, but instead produces an annual cost avoidance estimate to demonstrate some of the financial benefits resulting from the privatization of its lodging program. Army officials stated that they calculate cost avoidance by comparing the room rate it charges for its lodging—which is limited to 75 percent of the average local lodging per diem rate across its installations—to the maximum lodging per diem that could be charged for that location. However, by using this approach, the Army is likely overstating its cost avoidance, because off-base hotels do not always charge 100 percent of per diem. Until the Army evaluates the methodology it uses to calculate its cost avoidance, decision makers in the Department of Defense (DOD) and Congress cannot be sure that the reported financial benefits of privatization have actually been achieved. OSD's oversight of lodging programs has been limited in some cases. First, OSD and the military services lack standardized data that would be useful for making informed decisions about the lodging programs. Second, DOD requires both servicemembers and civilian employees to stay in on-base lodging when on official travel, with some exceptions. Yet, according to OSD, many travelers are staying in off-base lodging, and OSD has not done the in-depth analysis needed to determine why and how much it is costing the government. Without an analysis that assesses the extent to which travelers are inappropriately using off-base lodging and why it is occurring, as well as a plan to address any issues identified, neither DOD nor Congress can be sure that the department is making the most cost-effective use of taxpayer funds. Why GAO Did This Study In 2009, the Army began to privatize its lodging with the goal of addressing the poor condition of facilities more quickly than could be achieved under continued Army operation. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force currently have no plans to privatize their lodging programs. The Senate Armed Services Committee report accompanying a bill for the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision for GAO to review improvements made to Army lodging, among other things. This report examines the extent to which (1) the Army has improved its lodging facilities since privatizing; (2) OSD reported complete information about the Army's development plans to Congress; (3) the Army has reliably determined any cost savings or cost avoidance as a result of its privatized lodging program; and (4) there are limitations in OSD's oversight of the military services' lodging programs. GAO reviewed policies and guidance; analyzed lodging program data for fiscal years 2017 through 2019 (the 3 most recent years of complete and available information); and interviewed DOD officials.
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  • Force Structure: Improved Strategic Planning Can Enhance DOD’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Efforts
    In U.S GAO News
    The current generation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has been under development for defense applications since the 1980s. UAVs were used in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002 and 2003 to observe, track, target, and strike enemy forces. These successes have heightened interest in UAVs within the Department of Defense (DOD) and the services. GAO was asked to (1) determine how much funding DOD requested, was appropriated, and was obligated for major UAV development efforts during fiscal years 1999-2003 and (2) assess whether DOD's approach to planning for UAVs provides reasonable assurance that its investment in UAVs will facilitate their integration into the force structure.During the past 5 fiscal years, Congress provided more funding for UAV development and procurement than requested by DOD, and to date the services have obligated most of these funds. To promote rapid employment of UAVs, Congress has provided nearly $2.7 billion for UAV development and procurement compared with the $2.3 billion requested by DOD. Because Congress has appropriated more funds than requested, the services are able to acquire systems at a greater rate than planned. For example, in fiscal year 2003, the Air Force requested $23 million to buy 7 Predator UAVs, but Congress provided over $131 million--enough to buy 29 Predators. DOD's approach to planning for developing and fielding UAVs does not provide reasonable assurance that its investment in UAVs will facilitate their integration into the force structure efficiently, although DOD has taken positive steps to improve the UAV program's management. In 2001 DOD established a joint Planning Task Force in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. To communicate its vision and promote commonality of UAV systems, in 2002, the Task Force published the UAV Roadmap, which describes current programs, identifies potential missions, and provides guidance on emerging technologies. While the Roadmap identifies guidance and priority goals for UAV development, neither it nor other key documents represent a comprehensive strategic plan to ensure that the services and DOD agencies develop systems that complement each other, perform all required missions, and avoid duplication. Moreover, the Task Force serves in an advisory capacity to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, but has little authority to enforce program direction. Service officials indicated that their service-specific planning documents were developed to meet their own needs and operational concepts without considering those of other services. Without a strategic plan and an oversight body with sufficient authority to enforce program direction, DOD risks fielding a poorly integrated UAV force structure, which could increase costs and the risk of future interoperability problems.
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  • COVID-19: Additional Actions Needed to Improve Accountability and Program Effectiveness of Federal Response
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found As the nation continues to respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic, increases in COVID-19 cases in July, August, and September 2021, primarily due to the Delta variant of the virus, have hampered these efforts. From the end of July 2021 to September 23, 2021, the number of new cases reported each day generally exceeded 100,000, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. This was a daily case count not seen since February 2021 (see figure). Reported COVID-19 Cases per Day in the U.S., Mar. 1, 2020–Sept. 23, 2021 Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccination efforts continue. As of September 23, 2021, about 64 percent of the U.S. population eligible for vaccination (those 12 years and older), or almost 183 million individuals, had been fully vaccinated, according to CDC. The government must remain vigilant and agile to address the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and its cascading impacts. Furthermore, as the administration implements the provisions in the COVID-19 relief laws, the size and scope of these efforts—from distributing funding to implementing new programs—demand strong accountability and oversight. In that vein, GAO has made 209 recommendations across its body of COVID-19 reports issued since June 2020. As of September 30, 2021, agencies had addressed 33 of these recommendations, resulting in improvements including increased oversight of relief payments to individuals and improved transparency of decision-making for emergency use authorizations for vaccines and therapeutics. Agencies partially addressed another 48 recommendations. GAO also raised four matters for congressional consideration, three of which remain open. In this report, GAO is making 16 new recommendations, including recommendations related to fiscal relief funds for health care providers, recovery funds for states and localities, worker safety and health, and assessing fraud risks to unemployment insurance programs. GAO’s recommendations, if swiftly and effectively implemented, can help improve the government’s ongoing response and recovery efforts as well as help it to prepare for future public health emergencies. GAO’s new findings and recommendations, where applicable, are discussed below. Relief for Health Care Providers A total of $178 billion has been appropriated to the Provider Relief Fund (PRF) to reimburse eligible providers for health care–related expenses or lost revenues attributable to COVID-19. As of August 31, 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had allocated and disbursed about $132.5 billion of this amount and had allocated but not yet disbursed about $21.5 billion; the remaining $24.1 billion was unallocated and undisbursed. On September 10, 2021, HHS announced that $17 billion of the previously unallocated $24.1 billion would be allocated for a general distribution to a broad range of providers who could document COVID-related revenue loss and expenses. HHS expected to begin disbursing the funds in December 2021. As of September 2021, HHS’s Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) had not established time frames for implementing and completing post payment reviews for all PRF payments. In addition, the agency had not finalized procedures for recovery of overpayments or recovered the bulk of the overpayments that it had already identified. Without post-payment oversight to help ensure that relief payments are made only to eligible providers in correct amounts and to identify unused payments or payments not properly used, HHS cannot fully address stated payment integrity risks for the PRF and seek to recover overpayments, unused payments, or payments not properly used. GAO recommends that HRSA take steps to finalize and implement post-payment oversight. Specifically, HRSA should establish time frames for completing post-payment reviews to promptly address identified risks and identify overpayments made from the PRF, such as payments made in incorrect amounts or payments to ineligible providers; and it should finalize procedures and implement post-payment recovery of any PRF overpayments, unused payments, or payments not properly used. HHS—which includes HRSA—partially agreed with these recommendations. Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) appropriated $350 billion to the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to provide payments from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CSLFRF). The CSLFRF allocates funds to states, the District of Columbia, localities, tribal governments, and U.S. territories to cover a broad range of costs stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic’s fiscal effects. According to Treasury data, it had distributed approximately $240 billion from the CSLFRF to recipients as of August 31, 2021 (see figure). Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds Allocations and Treasury Distributions as of Aug. 31, 2021, by Recipient Type Note: For more details, see the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds enclosure in appendix I.aNon-entitlement units of local government are local governments typically serving populations of less than 50,000.As of July 2021, some of the 48 states that responded to GAO’s survey reported that they had somewhat less than or much less than sufficient capacity to report on their use of CSLFRF allocation consistent with federal requirements (17 of 48 states), capacity to disburse the funds (13 of 48 states), and apply appropriate internal controls and respond to inquiries about requirements (10 of 48 states). In addition, most states (44 of 48) reported that they had taken or planned to take additional steps—such as hiring new staff or reassigning existing staff—to help them manage their CSLFRF allocations. As of August 2021, Treasury was developing—but had not finalized or documented—key internal processes and control activities to monitor recipients’ use of their CSLFRF allocations for allowable purposes and to respond to internal control and compliance findings. According to officials, these internal processes and control activities were in the development stage, partly because of the short time frame since ARPA’s enactment and because Treasury’s Office of Recovery Programs, established in April 2021, continues to work to recruit and onboard key team members. Until Treasury properly designs and documents policies and procedures to guide CSLFRF program officials and other responsible oversight parties in the Office of Recovery Programs, there is a risk that key control activities needed to help ensure program management fulfills its recipient monitoring and oversight responsibilities may not be established or applied effectively and consistently. This risk may be particularly acute with respect to monitoring state and local recipients that face capacity challenges in managing their CSLFRF allocations in accordance with federal requirements, as some survey respondents noted. GAO recommends that Treasury design and document timely and sufficient policies and procedures for monitoring CSLFRF recipients to provide assurance that recipients are managing their allocations in compliance with laws, regulations, agency guidance, and award terms and conditions. Treasury agreed with the recommendation. Unemployment Insurance Fraud Risk Management GAO continues to have concerns about potential fraud in the unemployment insurance (UI) program, including concerns about Department of Labor (DOL) efforts to assess and manage program fraud risks. During the pandemic, fraudulent and potentially fraudulent activity has increased substantially and new types of fraud have emerged, according to DOL officials. For example, in June 2021, DOL’s Office of Inspector General reported that it had identified nearly $8 billion in potentially fraudulent UI benefits paid from March 2020 through October 2020. Improper payments have also been a long-standing concern in the regular unemployment insurance program, suggesting that the program may be vulnerable to fraud. While DOL continues to identify and implement strategies to address potential fraud and has some ongoing program integrity activities, it has not comprehensively assessed fraud risks in alignment with leading practices identified in GAO’s Fraud Risk Framework, which by law must be incorporated in guidelines established by the Office of Management and Budget for agencies. DOL has not clearly assigned defined responsibilities to a dedicated entity for designing and overseeing fraud risk management activities. Without a dedicated entity with defined responsibilities to lead antifraud initiatives, including the process of assessing fraud risks to UI programs, DOL may not be strategically managing UI fraud risks. GAO recommends that DOL designate a dedicated entity and document its responsibilities for managing the process of assessing fraud risks to the unemployment insurance program, consistent with leading practices as provided in GAO’s Fraud Risk Framework. This entity should have, among other things, clearly defined and documented responsibilities and authority for managing fraud risk assessments and for facilitating communication among stakeholders regarding fraud-related issues. DOL neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. DOL also has not comprehensively assessed UI fraud risks in alignment with leading practices identified in GAO’s Fraud Risk Framework. These leading practices call for federal managers to plan regular fraud risk assessments and determine their fraud risk profile, among other things. Such assessments would provide reasonable assurance that DOL has identified the most significant fraud risks for the regular UI program that will exist after the pandemic. For example, some fraud risks identified in the CARES Act UI programs may continue to exist in the regular UI program after the temporary UI programs expire. GAO recommends that DOL (1) identify inherent fraud risks facing the unemployment insurance program, (2) assess the likelihood and impact of inherent fraud risks facing the program, (3) determine fraud risk tolerance for the program, (4) examine the suitability of existing fraud controls in the program and prioritize residual fraud risks, and (5) document the fraud risk profile for the program. DOL neither agreed nor disagreed with these recommendations. FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund and Assistance to State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Governments The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has used the Disaster Relief Fund to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic—the first time the fund has been used during a nationwide public health emergency. For example, from September 1, 2020 to August 31, 2021, FEMA obligated a total of approximately $26.8 billion through one type of disaster assistance, Public Assistance, for emergency protective measures, such as eligible medical care, the purchase and distribution of food, and distribution of personal protective equipment. GAO found that FEMA inconsistently interpreted and applied its policies for expenses eligible for COVID-19 Public Assistance within and across its 10 regions. For example, officials in one state said that FEMA at one point had deemed the provision of personal protective equipment at correctional facilities as ineligible for reimbursement in their region but that states in other regions had received reimbursement for the same expense. These inconsistencies were due to, among other things, changes in policies as FEMA used the Public Assistance program for the first time to respond to a nationwide emergency. FEMA officials stated that it was difficult to ensure consistency in policies as different states and regions are not experiencing the same things at the same time. FEMA is likely to receive applications for reimbursement for a larger number of projects than it estimated earlier in 2021, given the surge in COVID-19 cases this summer. To improve the consistency of the agency’s interpretation and application of the COVID-19 Public Assistance policy, GAO recommends that FEMA further clarify and communicate eligibility requirements nationwide. GAO also recommends that FEMA require the agency’s Public Assistance employees in the regions and at its Consolidated Resource Centers to attend training on changes to COVID-19 Public Assistance policy. The Department of Homeland Security—which includes FEMA— agreed with both of these recommendations. Loans for Aviation and Other Eligible Businesses Treasury has executed 35 loan agreements with certain aviation businesses and other businesses deemed critical to maintaining national security. These loans have totaled about $22 billion of the $46 billion authorized by the CARES Act for loans and loan guarantees to such businesses. As directed by the CARES Act, Treasury required certain loan recipients to provide financial assets, such as warrants that give the federal government an option to buy shares of stock at a predetermined price before a specified date, to protect taxpayer interests. According to Treasury officials, it is likely that, if the airline industry continues to recover and borrowers do not default, the warrants could have higher values than the predetermined price Treasury would have to pay to act on them. Treasury has not exercised any of the warrants for stock it received from nine businesses, nor has it developed policies and procedures for determining when to act on the warrants to benefit the taxpayer. GAO recommends that Treasury develop policies and procedures to determine when to act on warrants obtained as part of the loan program for aviation and other eligible businesses to benefit the taxpayers. Treasury agreed with this recommendation. Payroll Support Assistance to Aviation Businesses As of September 2021, Treasury had made payments totaling $59 billion of $63 billion provided for the Payroll Support Programs to support aviation business. These payments were to be used exclusively for the continuation of wages, salaries, and benefits. Similar to Treasury’s requirement for loans for aviation and other eligible businesses, Treasury required certain Payroll Support Program recipients to provide warrants, as allowed by the CARES Act. As of September 2021, 14 recipients had provided a total of 58 million warrants. As Treasury continues to hold these warrants for stock purchases, the warrants may increase in value as the airline industry recovers. Treasury has not exercised any of the warrants for stock it holds in the 14 businesses, nor has it documented policies and procedures to guide when to act on the warrants to fulfill the statutory purpose to provide appropriate compensation to the federal government. GAO recommends that Treasury develop policies and procedures to determine when to act on warrants obtained as part of the Payroll Support Program to provide appropriate compensation to the federal government. Treasury agreed with this recommendation. COVID-19 Testing Use is increasing for antigen tests, one of two types of COVID-19 diagnostic and screening tests for which HHS’s Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency use authorizations. These “rapid” antigen tests typically have a turnaround time of about 30 minutes or less for results, compared with 1 to 3 days for molecular tests, the second type of test HHS authorized. Antigen tests can be conducted at doctors’ offices or in homes or other settings; some antigen tests can be conducted without a prescription. Since June 2020, HHS has worked to encourage and improve the reporting of antigen testing data to local, state, and federal health officials. However, HHS officials told GAO reporting of antigen test results is incomplete, which prevents HHS from using antigen testing data for COVID-19 surveillance. HHS is taking additional steps aimed at improving reporting of antigen test data. For example, officials told GAO that HHS will continue to make enhancements to data reporting by building reporting methods into the testing process, such as for testing in schools and workplaces. HHS is also considering surveillance approaches to supplement or enhance current surveillance efforts. For example, HHS is exploring wastewater surveillance approaches, which provide data that can complement and confirm other forms of surveillance for COVID-19 and an efficient pooled community sample that is particularly useful in areas where timely COVID-19 clinical testing is underutilized or unavailable, according to HHS officials. Worker Safety and Health The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) faced challenges in enforcing workplace safety and health standards during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the agency has not assessed lessons learned or promising practices. According to inspectors from area offices, they faced challenges related to resources and to communication and guidance, such as a lack of timely guidance from OSHA headquarters. GAO recommends that OSHA assess—as soon as feasible and, as appropriate, periodically thereafter—various challenges related to resources and to communication and guidance that the agency has faced in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and take related actions as warranted. The Department of Labor—which includes OSHA—partially agreed with this recommendation. Advance Child Tax Credit Payments ARPA temporarily expanded eligibility for the child tax credit (CTC) to additional qualified individuals by eliminating a requirement that individuals must earn a minimum amount annually to be eligible. ARPA also temporarily increased the maximum amount of the CTC from $2,000 per qualifying child to $3,000 or $3,600, depending on the child’s age. As required by ARPA, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Treasury are responsible for issuing half of the CTC through periodic advance payments, known as advance CTC payments. IRS reported disbursing more than 106 million advance payments totaling over $45.5 billion as of September 25, 2021 (see figure). Dollar Amount and Count of Advance Child Tax Credit Payments, by Month, as of Sept. 25, 2021 IRS is conducting and planning several outreach efforts to increase the public’s awareness of advance CTC payments. However, IRS and Treasury have not developed a comprehensive estimate of individuals who are potentially eligible for advance CTC payments and the agencies have not set a participation goal. Such an estimate would enable Treasury and IRS to measure the tax credit’s participation rate, providing greater clarity regarding populations at risk of not receiving the payments. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, estimate the number of individuals, includingnonfilers, who are eligible for advance CTC payments, measure the 2021 participation rate based on that estimate, and use that estimate to develop targeted outreach and communications efforts for the 2022 filing season; the participation rate could include individuals who opt in and out of the advance payments. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Child Nutrition Child nutrition programs administered by the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) supply cash reimbursements to schools or other programs for meals and snacks provided to eligible children nationwide. In fiscal year 2019, before the pandemic, the four largest programs—the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service Program, and Child and Adult Care Food Program—along with other child nutrition programs, received $23.1 billion in federal funds. During a typical year, two of these programs—the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program—subsidize meals for nearly 30 million children in approximately 95,000 elementary and secondary schools nationwide. As of July 2021, FNS officials were unable to provide a plan showing how FNS intends to comprehensively analyze lessons learned during the pandemic, such as from operational and financial challenges. Further, according to FNS officials, while the School Meals Operations study—launched in spring 2021—is surveying school districts and state agencies that administer the federal child nutrition programs, the study is not gathering local perspectives directly from child care centers and day care homes or other local program sponsors that are not school districts. As a result, FNS may miss opportunities to identify lessons learned and will lack comprehensive information to aid its future planning. GAO recommends that the Department of Agriculture document its plan to analyze lessons learned from operating child nutrition programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. This plan should include a description of how the department will gather perspectives of key stakeholders, such as Child and Adult Care Food Program institutions and nonschool Summer Food Service Program sponsors. The Department of Agriculture—which includes FNS—agreed with this recommendation. Why GAO Did This Study As of September 23, 2021, the U.S. had about 43 million reported cases of COVID-19 and about 699,000 reported deaths, according to CDC. The country also continues to experience economic repercussions from the pandemic. Six relief laws, including the CARES Act, had been enacted as of August 31, 2021, to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of that same date (the most recent for which government-wide data was available), the federal government had obligated a total of $3.9 trillion and expended $3.4 trillion of the $4.8 trillion in COVID-19 relief funds that had been appropriated by these six laws, as reported by federal agencies. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities. GAO also interviewed federal and state officials, stakeholders from organizations for localities, and other stakeholders.
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