By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- The Obama administration rolled out a push Monday to get faster, better broadband to every American and every part of the country by creating a broadband council to coordinate federal efforts.
Jeff Zients, director of the White House National Economic Council, said Monday that more American jobs depend on "access to the tools of the digital economy." Faster broadband fuels the next generation business start-ups, he added. The U.S. needs to ensure it is keeping up with the global economy when it comes to digital technology. "The bottom line is access to broadband is not a luxury, it's a necessity," Zients said on a call with reporters.
President Barack Obama talked about faster broadband in January when he spoke in Cedar Falls, Iowa. That speech suggested the White House would be making a push to try to increase broadband investment nationally.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who will co-chair a new Broadband Opportunity Council, said farmers, livestock producers and rural businesses stand to gain from better access to higher internet speeds. Faster data could help with producing commodities and helping farmers market their crops or livestock.
"One of the key opportunities in agriculture is the use of data, 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," Vilsack said. "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 products on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis can ensure farmers are getting a fair price and a market price for whatever they are selling on that particular day at that particular time in the day."
The White House memorandum issued Monday stated more than 50 million Americans still cannot buy wired broadband at high speeds and only about 29% of people have a choice of more than one provider offering high-speed access. However, part of the reason so many people are without high-speed broadband access is because the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year raised the bar regarding the definition of minimum download speeds. The FCC considers high-speed broadband as access to 25 megabytes per second downloads and 3 mbps speeds for uploads.
According to the FCC, more than half of rural Americans -- about 22 million people -- do not have access to the 25 mbps/3 mbps service. Moreover, 35% of schools nationally still lack access to networks capable of delivering higher broadband speeds.
While maintaining that in-home and business broadband networks need more investment and service upgrades, the White House stated 98% of Americans live in areas where they now have access to 4th generation (4G) mobile broadband service, based on data released by the national Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Still, the White House stated it will be a priority of federal agencies to help with the development of broadband networks for homes and businesses. The administration also wants to break down regulatory barriers to expanding broadband access nationally. As part of the effort, the Obama administration is creating the Broadband Opportunity Council, which will be co-chaired by Vilsack and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. The council will coordinate agency efforts and funding to further spur the development of broadband networks nationally.
"I think the focus of this council is: What do we need to do to support this industry and provide access to Americans who are currently unserved or underserved?" Vilsack said.
The council will survey federal programs that could be modified to help increase broadband competition or development. The council has to report back within 150 days to highlight what agencies are doing and what next steps or funding might be necessary.
USDA took the opportunity Monday to announce funding for $35.1 million in loans for three rural broadband projects in Arkansas, Iowa and New Mexico. Vilsack said these are just the beginning of 25-30 major broadband funding announcements USDA will roll out in the coming months under the department's loan program. Even more projects will be announced through rural telemedicine and distance learning programs.
"This is a concerted effort of both large and small projects and at the end of the day we would expect to add to the already 500 projects we have already funded and 3,400 hospitals and schools we have lent funding to," Vilsack said.
Under the USDA announcement 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% of its territory. USDA noted the Rural Utilities Service has held outreach workshops around the country in the past year to help tribes tap into USDA broadband programs.
Iowa's Minburn Communications also will receive a $4.7 million loan to upgrade its copper network to fiber, and to provide subscribers with voice, broadband and video service.
Chris Clayton can be reached at email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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