Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that USDA has funded three rural telecommunications infrastructure projects that will improve broadband service in portions of rural Arkansas, Iowa and New Mexico. This announcement coincides with the news that the President Obama signed a new Presidential Memorandum to create the Broadband Opportunity Council, co-chaired by Secretary Vilsack and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

"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. "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."

Southwest Arkansas Telephone will receive a $25 million loan to upgrade portions of a fiber network and convert the remaining portions of a copper system to fiber to improve service for subscribers.

In New Mexico, Mescalero Apache Telecom will receive a $5.4 million loan to upgrade portions of its system and provide fiber service to approximately 50 percent of its territory. This is the first loan that USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has made under the Substantially Underserved Trust Area provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill. These provisions amended the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to make funding available to areas that historically have had difficulty receiving federal assistance. RUS has held a series of outreach workshops around the country in the past year to help Tribal communities access RUS broadband programs.

Iowa's Minburn Communications has been selected to receive a $4.7 million loan to upgrade its copper network to fiber, and to provide subscribers with voice, broadband and video service.

USDA is providing a total of $35 million in broadband infrastructure loans in today's announcement. In 2014, the Rural Utilities Service awarded $228 million to improve telecommunications service for 83,000 rural customers.

As part of Obama Administration's announcement of the creation of the Broadband Opportunity Council, the White House noted that through significant private investment we have reached the President's national goal of providing 98% of Americans with high-speed 4th Generation (4G) mobile broadband, based on newly-released Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data.

The Council includes over twenty-five different government agencies and components, all united around clear policy objectives to:

  • Engage with industry and other stakeholders to understand ways the government can better support the needs of communities seeking broadband investment;
  • Identify regulatory barriers unduly impeding broadband deployment or competition;
  • Survey and report back on existing programs that currently support or could be modified to support broadband competition, deployment or adoption; and
  • Take all necessary actions to remove these barriers and re-align existing programs to increase broadband competition, deployment, and adoption.

The Council will report back to the President, within 150 days, with the steps each agency will take to advance these goals, including specific regulatory actions or budget proposals.

"Broadband access is as key to economic success today as electricity was in the 20th Century," Vilsack said. "The Administration's strong and deepening commitment to bridging the digital divide in rural America will be my focus on this Council."

Since 2009, USDA investments in broadband include more than 500 projects for a total investment of $5.88 billion through the Farm Bill broadband program, Title II Infrastructure, Community Connect and Recovery Act programs.

President Obama's plan for rural America has brought about historic investment and resulted in stronger rural communities. Under the President's leadership, these investments in housing, community facilities, businesses and infrastructure have empowered rural America to continue leading the way – strengthening America's economy, small towns and rural communities.

USDA's investments in rural communities support the rural way of life that stands as the backbone of our American values. President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack are committed to a smarter use of Federal resources to foster sustainable economic prosperity and ensure the government is a strong partner for businesses, entrepreneurs and working families in rural communities.