WASHINGTON, March 23, 2015 – USDA announced that it will bring $35 million to the table as it teams up with the White House to increase high speed and wired broadband access in under-served and rural areas.

The $35 million in loans USDA is contributing will go to three telecommunications companies in Arkansas, New Mexico and Iowa, to support broadband infrastructure upgrades, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters in a conference call this afternoon.

"These telecommunications providers will deliver enhanced broadband services to help attract and grow businesses, as well as to improve educational and health care services," Vilsack said in a press release. "Time and again, studies show that affordable broadband offers increased economic opportunities in rural areas, which is why Rural Development is committed to delivering high-speed Internet service to these communities."

The White House today also announced that President Obama has signed a memorandum creating the Broadband Opportunity Council, a collaboration of 25 government agencies and departments dedicated to encouraging infrastructure improvements necessary for broadband expansion.

The Council, headed by Vilsack and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, is required to engage with industry stakeholders, identify the regulatory barriers to broadband expansion and report back to the president within 150 days on how to overcome those barriers.

The loans announced today are being administered by USDA’s Rural Utilities Service. They are going to:

- Southwest Arkansas Telephone ($25 million) for upgrading portions of a fiber network and converting the remaining portions of a copper system to fiber to improve service for subscribers.

- Mescalero Apache Telecom in New Mexico ($5.4 million) for fiber service and system upgrades.

- Minburn Communications in Iowa ($4.7 million) to upgrade its copper network to fiber, and to provide subscribers with voice, broadband and video service.

USDA expects to issue more loans for similar projects, according to Vilsack. “This is a concerted effort of both large and small projects,” he said. “There will be 25 to 30 additional project loans that will be announced in the future.”

Vilsack said his department’s dedication to expanding access in rural areas is unwavering. Since 2009, for instance, the administration has invested $5.88 billion in loans and grants through various programs to expand broadband access to an additional 1.5 million subscribers. In 2014, the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service awarded $228 million to improve telecommunications service for 83,000 rural customers.  

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The National Broadband Association (NTCA), which represents nearly 900 independent, rural-based telecommunications companies, welcomed the USDA’s continued support of broadband issues. In a press release, Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO for NTCA, said that her organization represents companies with “proven track record(s) in overcoming communications challenges in rural areas, and their efforts in conjunction with USDA backing are the embodiment of precisely the kinds of public-private partnerships that our nation should be leveraging.”

The White House noted that through significant private investment, the administration has reached Obama’s national goal of providing 98 percent of Americans with high-speed 4th Generation (4G) mobile broadband, based on newly-released Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data.

Greater access to broadband services means more opportunities for farmers and ranchers to improve farm productivity and use timely market information, Vilsack told reporters.

“One of the key opportunities in agriculture is the use of data, both open data and big data, and the opportunity for information to be aggregated to provide farmers additional information on how best to increase productivity,” Vilsack said.

“In many parts of the country farmers are still getting information concerning market prices with a slight delay relative to the market,” he continued. “High speed broadband provides them real time information with which to make decisions… on a day to day, minute by minute basis.”

Such an increase in accessibility “ensure(s) that farmers are getting a fair price in the market for whatever it is they are selling on that particular day at that particular time in the day,” he added.


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