July 24, 2015
The federal government this week announced plans to distribute $85 million in new funding for rural Internet access. However, the money is not coming from a telecom-related agency such as the FCC; instead, it is coming from the Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the Department of Housing and Urban Development unveiled its ConnectHome pilot program that will provide free or low-cost Internet access to residents of public housing. The USDA and HUD are among the federal agencies that now view the Internet as a basic necessity.
“USDA’s announcement Monday is the latest in a six-year push to get rural Americans on broadband,” reports The Washington Post. “The agency estimates that its efforts have connected 6 million Americans to the Web, with 1.5 million signing up for service as a result. Its loans and grants, funded through congressional appropriations and the Recovery Act, target mainly smaller communities of 5,000 residents or fewer.”
In rural communities like La Valle, a town of about 1,300 people in southwest Wisconsin, Internet access would not be available without federal loans. LaValle Telephone Cooperative, one of eight providers slated to receive loans or grants, will be getting $7.61 million from the USDA as part of the initiative to fund rural Internet access nationwide.
“We’re trying to live up to the president’s commitment on [broadband],” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Focus on the areas that don’t have it today or on those who don’t have many telecom facilities at all. People are surprised we do home loans. People are surprised we build schools and hospitals, and that we equip them.”
The Garden Valley Telephone Co., a co-op based in Minnesota, is receiving more than $12 million from the USDA. According to Tim Brinkman, Garden Valley’s general manager, the company is pushing into next-gen broadband by connecting farmers in the area to high-speed fiber optics.
“With the FCC looking to increase both download and upload requirements,” said Brinkman, “it’s important for us to build out fiber, and we aren’t able to do that without those loan programs.”