Think of government agencies leading the fight for improving broadband access in America, and you’ll probably think of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This agency implemented net neutrality, increased funding for the Connect America Program, and provided broadband subsidies for low-income households.

That all said, one of the last groups you’d probably think of is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but there’s reason you should. The USDA recently announced an increase in its ongoing support for expanding broadband availability, pledging money for broadband upgrades in rural areas of seven states.

How much and where is it going?
On July 20, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $74.8 million in loans and $11 million in grants to improve rural broadband access. Those funds will be distributed to seven states as follows.

1.Alaska: A $1.4 million grant will go to Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, Inc. to provide service to the residents of Hope Point and to ready the network for a future link to an undersea fiber network.
2.Minnesota: Garden Valley Telephone will receive a $12.63 million loan to upgrade its network to fiber. Consolidated Telephone will receive a $12.27 million loan to increase its bandwidth and fiber network.
3.Montana: Triangle Telephone Cooperative Association will get $29.95 million in loans to build a fiber network for rural customers.
4.Oklahoma: A $1.5 million grant will go to @Link Services to provide high-speed Internet service to residential and business customers in Seminole County.
5.South Carolina: A $12.38 million loan will allow FTC Communications to modernize its wireless network to the 4G/LTE standard.
6.Virginia: Scott County Telephone Cooperative will receive a $2.1 million grant to build a network with one gig of bandwidth in Dickenson County.
7.Wisconsin: LaValle Telephone Cooperative will get a $7.61 million loan to replace old equipment, install fiber, and allow it to connect to other gigabit networks.

Why the USDA?
At first glance, the USDA does seem like a strange choice to help advance broadband availability, but the agency does have a history of such aid. It was the USDA that helped bring electricity to many rural customers, and the agency kept up with the times.

Between 2009 and the July announcement, the USDA already contributed $77 million to improve rural broadband for 1.5 million customers. And there are two good reasons the USDA remains involved in rural broadband.

1.Agriculture requires wide-open spaces and low population density, which is exactly the opposite of what attracts private ISPs: Minnesota’s Garden Valley has only two households per square mile.
2.Broadband access can help make farming more profitable and productive. It might not be obvious just how high-tech farming and ranching have become, but modern agricultural machinery can communicate wirelessly, just as equipment in any warehouse or factory can.

When President Obama noted earlier this year that broadband is a necessity, not a luxury, he wasn’t just talking about streaming video or online shopping.

“Broadband is fundamental to expanding economic opportunity and job creation in rural areas, and it is as vital to rural America’s future today as electricity was when USDA began bringing power to rural America 80 years ago,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a written statement.

Why Not the USDA?
Although the money may be earmarked for agricultural purposes, it will provide other benefits as well, improving students’ access to learning and consumers’ access to entertainment, commerce, and basic information. For those rural residents who benefit from USDA funding, it doesn’t matter where the funding comes from, so much as where broadband can take them.

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