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USDA tackles Iowa’s rural broadband problem

WASHINGTON – A new injection of funding into a rural Iowa telecom is USDA’s next step toward upgrading the state’s lagging rural broadband infrastructure.

On Monday, USDA announced Minburn Communications in Dallas County, Iowa 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.

Studies show that affordable broadband offers increased economic opportunities in rural areas, according to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and he says that’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development is committed to delivering high-speed internet service to rural communities.

In total, USDA this week funded three telecommunications infrastructure projects to improve broadband service in rural areas of Arkansas, Iowa and New Mexico. Vilsack says the telecommunications providers will deliver enhanced broadband services to help attract and grow businesses, as well as to improve educational and health care services.

In 2014, USDA’s Rural Utilities Service awarded $248 million to improve telecommunications service for 120,000 rural customers nationwide.

Since 2009, USDA alone has invested over $5.8 billion in over 500 broadband projects, through the Farm Bill broadband program, Title II Infrastructure, Community Connect and Recovery Act programs. In Iowa, USDA Rural Development State Director Bill Menner says that figure is about $300 million.

“At a time when the Iowa Legislature is still debating its approach to rural broadband, USDA Rural Development continues to make significant investments across the state,” said Menner in a statement.

Speaking to reporters by phone Monday, Vilsack cited improved productivity and better crop marketing as two specific benefits of getting faster and more reliable Internet connections into rural areas.

“One of the key opportunities in agriculture is the use of data,’ explained Vilsack. “Both open data and big data; and the opportunity for information to be aggregated to provide farmers additional information on how best to increase productivity. Once they become more productive, then the key is marketing. In many parts of the country, farmers are still getting information concerning market prices with a slight delay relative to the market. High-speed broadband provides them real-time information from which to make decisions; real-time information by which elevators that are pricing product on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis can ensure that farmers are getting a fair price and the market price for whatever it is they’re selling that particular day at that particular time in the day.”