USDA Details First Round of Broadband Funding

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A first round of funding for broadband projects from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service will bring broadband availability to nearly 530,000 households and 93,000 businesses, the USDA said Wednesday.

The first round of broadband funding, made available through the huge economic stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), will create about 5,000 new jobs, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a press conference. New jobs would include workers to build broadband networks and lay fiber, and Internet service provider positions after the networks are in place, he said.

In the first round of funding, the USDA awarded US$1.07 billion to 68 projects in 31 states and one U.S. territory, Vilsack said. In addition to households and businesses, the funding will bring broadband to more than 3,000 schools, hospitals and other community anchor institutions, he said.

About 14 million U.S. residents lack access to broadband, Vilsack said. "We're committed to bridging that gap, just as we did with electric power and telecommunications," he said.

The USDA's goal in its two rounds of broadband grants and loans is to reach 1.2 million households, 230,000 businesses and close to 8,000 anchor institutions, Vilsack said.

The broadband investments will help farmers and ranchers have real-time information on weather and prices, help schools offer new courses through distance learning, help rural hospitals offer new services through telemedicine and help rural businesses gain access to a global market, Vilsack said.

"This is going to help rural America with a great boost," he said.

One award went to Madison Telephone, a cooperative in southeast Kansas, and will extend broadband service to residents living in a 200-square-mile area, the USDA said.

"We have been struggling for several years with the need to offer high-speed broadband to our subscribers but simply could not afford this type of project," company CEO Mary Meyer wrote in a letter to Vilsack. "The opportunity of stimulus funding will allow us to provide the technology to our subscribers so they have the necessary broadband speeds to work, research, gain access to markets, weather and personal networking."

Madison Telephone plans to start digging up ground for broadband lines by early September, she wrote.

The Rural Utilities Service received $2.5 billion to subsidize broadband in rural areas from the ARRA, which Congress passed in February 2009. The ARRA included a total of $7.2 billion for broadband deployment programs, with the rest of the money going to the U.S. National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA).

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