USDA tweaks rules for rural broadband grants

 US Ag secretary Tom Vilsack says his agency has come up with new rules to fund broadband services in “unserved” rural areas through its Rural Development Community Connect Grant program.  He says they’ve simplified the application process, are allowing grant applicants to use better tools to define their proposed service areas, and are giving grant applicants “more flexibility” on the types of contributions that can be used to meet their required 15-percent in matching funds.

The USDA can now consider giving funding priority to projects in the most poverty-stricken counties, areas having population declines and the most rural areas in the country.  USDA rural development loans and loan guarantees are also available to “help finance the construction of rural broadband networks.”  To date, the agency says grant program has funded more than 200 broadband projects with more than 122-Million dollars.

USDA state Rural Development leaders meet

State directors of USDA Rural Development agencies met in Washington last week to discuss their program priorities in light of expected budget cuts. Janie Dunning, director of Missouri Rural Development, tells Brownfield that broadband, housing, business, jobs and infrastructure remain the priorities. Dunning tells Brownfield Ag News, “These priorities have been identified through surveys and discussions with our end users and I don’t think it’s a priority that anybody else wouldn’t have.”

Over the last 18 months, Dunning says she’s already had to cut 22% of her staff. The extent of sequestration cuts this Friday, March 1st is still unknown and she says they’re also looking at the continuing budget resolution that runs out March 27th.

“The best thing we can hope for,” she says, “Is that we at least have a continuing resolution that will take us for the balance of the year and let us keep operating. But, those continuing resolutions always come with some cuts as well.”

Also, the lack of a full farm year farm bill could impact programs. The farm bill extension last as long as the continuing resolution does, at the end of March.

Dunning says they’ve been able to preserve a lot on the program side of Rural Development. Only 3% of their budget is for direct grants, the rest is in loan guarantee programs through local financial institutions and through the Rural Development Agency itself.

Vilsack says broadband order to help rural America

President Obama signed an executive order this week giving federal agencies the green light to proceed with construction of broadband on and through federal properties to help reduce the cost and increase the speed of its deployment across the country.

The Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, the Interior, Transportation, Veterans Affairs and the US Postal Service have been instructed to offer broadband carriers one approach to leasing federal properties for broadband expansion.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack tells Brownfield Ag News, “You know, we’re not waiting for Congress to give us the authority. We’re using existing authorities as best we can to expand this very important 21st century tool.”

Vilsack tells Brownfield broadband is a crucial tool for agriculture and rural America.

“Part of the strategy of rebuilding the rural economy is to make sure that as we’re producing these products we’re able to market them,” says Vilsack, “Not just to ourselves locally but regionally and globally. To do that you need telecommunications equipment that’s up to date and up to speed. And, that’s why it’s important to expand broadband access in rural areas. We have over 300 projects at USDA that we are currently working on.”

The president’s executive order establishes a Broadband Deployment on Federal Property Working Group with a representative from the USDA and the other agencies to report back with recommendations in one year.

AUDIO: Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack (3:00 mp3)

President Obama – Broadband Acceleration Executive Order

Executive order for broadband acceleration

President Obama signed an executive order this week giving federal agencies the green light to proceed with construction of broadband on and through federal properties to help reduce the cost and increase the speed of its deployment across the country.

The Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, the Interior, Transportation, Veterans Affairs and the US Postal Service have been instructed to offer broadband carriers one approach to leasing federal properties for broadband expansion.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack tells Brownfield Ag News, “You know, we’re not waiting for Congress to give us the authority. We’re using existing authorities as best we can to expand this very important 21st century tool.”

Vilsack tells Brownfield broadband is a crucial tool for agriculture and rural America.

“Part of the strategy of rebuilding the rural economy is to make sure that as we’re producing these products we’re able to market them,” says Vilsack, “Not just to ourselves locally but regionally and globally. To do that you need telecommunications equipment that’s up to date and up to speed. And, that’s why it’s important to expand broadband access in rural areas. We have over 300 projects at USDA that we are currently working on.”

The president’s executive order establishes a Broadband Deployment on Federal Property Working Group with a representative from the USDA and the other agencies to report back with recommendations in one year.

AUDIO: Tom Vilsack (3:00 mp3)

White House – Broadband Executive Order

Ag doing what Obama wants for economy, says Vilsack

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says the emphasis on building a stronger economy and middle class – outlined by President Obama in his State of the Union speech last night – is what’s happening in Rural America. Farmers make, create and innovate – says Vilsack – and that lends itself to increased exports, which helps the entire economy.

“Agriculture is doing that,” says Vilsack, “Agriculture is a proof point for the President’s formula. It’s probably the strongest proof point in the economy today. And, we at USDA are going to continue to work for the American public to make sure that agriculture continues to succeed.”

Vilsack says the president’s push for increased renewable fuels production and continued expansion of broadband, for example, will directly impact the economies of rural areas and the nation as a whole.

AUDIO: Secretary Tom Vilsack (18:00 mp3)

USDA says Rural Development progress made

The head of the USDA Rural Development Office says the work they’re doing is having a positive impact on Rural America. Undersecretary Dallas Tonsager says the 2011 Rural Development Fiscal Year 2011 Annual Report shows they have invested almost $29 Billion dollars and “created or saved an estimated 440-thousand” jobs through the rural business cooperative, utilities and housing programs…

“Provided housing opportunities for over 143,000 families, upgraded community facilities across the country, supported improvements to the national electric grid, funded renewable energy projects, expanded access to affordable, high-quality internet service for rural residents throughout the Community Connect and other broadband programs.”

Tonsager says they were able to spur much of that growth without taxpayer dollars…

“Roughly 63% of our fiscal year 2011 investments served to increase access to capital for rural businesses, communities and homebuyers without a direct cost to the federal government.”

Under the USDA “Blueprint for Stronger Service” – 43 Rural Development offices in 17 states are slated for closure.  Tonsager says they tried to minimize the impact…

“It’s very tough for us, a very significant percentage of our offices nationally. And, we want to keep that work going forward but we did have to recognize that the funding levels that are available to us for having employees in the fields has been restricted for some time now.”

Tonsager says they still have 450 Rural Development offices that will remain open.

AUDIO: Dallas Tonsager (21:00 mp3)

Rural broadband company files for Chapter 11

A Colorado-based rural wireless broadband company that received a nearly 300-million dollar loan from the USDA has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  That’s according to a report in the Denver Business Journal.

Open Range Communications says it is trying to find a buyer for the struggling operation—and if none emerges in the next month, it will shut down. 

Open Range launched its service in 2009, but has been beset with financial difficulties and a shortage of spectrum.  According to mobiledia.com, the company had hopes of turning around its fortunes through a deal reached earlier this year with LightSquared.  It planned to move its data-only WiMax service over to Lightsquared’s planned LTE network.  However, LightSquared experienced problems of its own this year, after its plans to roll out LTE wholesales service were put on hold because of federal concerns that it may interfere with GPS systems.

Meanwhile, Open Range owes several agencies a great deal of money in loans and has not said how those debts will be repaid.  Included is a 267-million dollar loan from the Rural Utilities Service of the USDA, part of the federal government’s effort to expand broadband service in rural and underserved areas.

Open Range has about 26-thousand customers in rural parts of 11 states—Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Ag commissioners back mobile merger

The agriculture commissioners of South Dakota and Iowa are among nine state ag leaders supporting the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine.

The ag commissioners – also from Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Arkansas and Texas – say expanded wireless broadband in rural areas would help farmers with better use of GPS for crop management, seeding and fertilizing – in addition to creating jobs and enhancing education.

South Dakota Ag Commissioner Walt Bones tells the magazine that the merger would be a giant step toward ensuring more South Dakotans have broadband access.

The FFA and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association reportedly also support the deal. However, the US Justice Department has filed a suit to block the proposed merger but Broadcasting & Cable reports “the FCC is still vetting it and Justice has indicated it’s willing to talk with AT&T about resolving its competition issues.”

Iowa tour highlights importance of broadband

The importance of high-speed broadband service to farms and rural areas was the focus of an event in north-central Iowa on Wednesday.

The administrator of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS)—Jonathan Adelstein—toured a farm near Rudd, Iowa where fiber-optic network service is being deployed by a local independent telecommunications company, OmniTel Communications.  Adelstein watched as a farmer used a broadband Internet connection to download data that he used to program GPS on his tractor.

Adelstein’s agency provided loans to help with the 35-million dollar OmniTel project.  He says such investments are important to everyone, especially rural youth.

“Who knows? The next Steve Jobs might come from Rudd,” says Adelstein, “but if he didn’t have access to broadband, he would never have the opportunity to learn and to grow and to have that experience.”

During the Wednesday tour, representatives of Iowa’s independent telephone companies expressed their concerns to Adelstein about the proposed National Broadband Plan. They believe regulations in the FCC plan would actually be detrimental to their efforts to keep building advanced networks and infrastructure in rural areas of the state. 

They call it “The Great Disconnect”.

 

Rural Utilities Service administrator to visit Iowa

The administrator of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service Jonathan Adelstein will be in north-central Iowa today (Tuesday).  He will visit an OmniTel Communications site in Rudd, Iowa where the company is in the process of deploying a 35-million dollar fiber-optic network. 

Adelstein’s visit is part of a campaign called The Great Disconnect, launched by a coalition of Iowa telecommunications companies.  It’s designed to increase awareness with government officials and the general public as to the negative impact that proposed new federal regulations could have on those independent telecommunication companies and the rural communities they serve.

Iowa Telecommunications Association spokesman Joe Hrdlicka says Adelstein will visit a farm, where he will see how investments in broadband technology benefit end users.

 “We’re going to bring a tractor in and show how a broadband connection is used to download data to a GPS system on the tractor,” Hrdlicka says. “We’re going to also show some other uses of broadband, particularly on the farm and in rural-directed businesses.” 

Hrdlicka says a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission—called the National Broadband Plan—could jeopardize Iowa’s access to equitable and fairly-priced communications services in the next few years.  He says that is the message they will convey to Adelstein.

“The financing that’s provided through his particular agency could be in jeopardy, based on our companies’ abilities to pay those loans back, if some of the plans the FCC is currently contemplating go into effect,” Hrdlicka says.

OmniTel Telecommunications, located in Nora Springs, Iowa, serves approximately 55-hundred customers with voice, Internet and cable television.  More than 145 Iowa independent telecommunications companies are part of the Independent Telecommunications Companies Coalition.

AUDIO: Joe Hrdlicka (5:49 MP3)