USDA Doles Out $1.2 Billion in Broadband Grants

by Kenneth Corbin

Administration's "summer of recovery" continues with another major wave of broadband stimulus grants provided for under the recovery act.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded another major wave of funding for broadband projects in rural America under the economic stimulus bill.

The Department this week announced the dispersal of $1.2 billion for 126 distinct broadband projects, aiming to connect homes and businesses as well as anchor institutions such as hospitals and police stations.

The latest wave of spending brings Agriculture and the Commerce Department that much closer to doling out all of the $7.2 billion allocated to the two departments for broadband projects under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enacted last February.

Of that, $2.5 billion was allocated to Agriculture, and the remaining $4.7 billion to Commerce.

Collectively, the grants and loans, many of which entail matching commitments by the network provider, were aimed at bringing high-speed Internet service to parts of America where market incentives had not been sufficient to lure private-sector firms. In that sense, the stimulus funds were billed as a down payment on the Obama administration's effort to close the digital divide, and ensure that low-income or rural Americans enjoyed the same economic opportunities broadband facilitates in more affluent, central areas.

The stimulus funding also set aside some money for broadband mapping projects and training and education to address the demand side of the issue.

Writing in a post on the White House blog announcing the latest wave of grants, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said they intend to allocate all of the remaining broadband funding by the end of September.

"We are looking forward to the two months ahead when we will be rolling out the remainder of our awards, and we hope many of you are as well," Vilsack and Locke wrote. "We're excited to be finally building the infrastructure of the future, and to be executing the president's and Congress' vision of a high-speed, high-performance America."

Many of the projects announced this week will spur broadband deployments in rural areas, including several projects in tribal lands. Much of the funding targets particularly low-income areas designated as "persistent poverty counties."

In Oklahoma, for instance, a provider called the Cimarron Telephone Company will deliver broadband service to a region comprised of five counties and heavily populated by members of the Osage, Pawnee and Creek tribes.

"The delivery of broadband to these areas will promote rural economic development, improve access to education, health care, public safety and most importantly, provide the infrastructure needed to create the environment for the growth of quality jobs," Vilsack and Locke said. "Without the Internet, business growth is stifled."

They also laid out an approximate timetable for the dispersal of the remaining grants and loans, including the first Commerce funding for public safety networks.

All told, Commerce plans to award between $2.3 billion and $3.3 billion through the end of September. Agriculture anticipates awarding its remaining $640 million.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

This article was originally published on Thursday Aug 5th 2010