USDA's broad view of broadband expansion

Thursday - 8/12/2010, 9:31am EDT

Jonathan Adelstein, Administrator, Rural Utilities Service, USDA

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

Ronald Reagan is famously quoted as saying "The ten most dangerous words in the English language are 'Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'" But Jonathan Adelstein told Federal News Radio that's exactly what he feels he's doing.

As the Administrator of the Rural Utilities Service at the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Adelstein has led USDA's effort to distribute more than $2.6 billion in broadband grants and loans through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

The reason it's so important is that we're tying the whole country together just as we did with rural electrification. It was our agency, the former Rural Electrification Administration that did that. It transformed life in rural areas. It made it possible for much more productivity in the agricultural economy, and now agriculture is a small part of the world economy, and this will make that productivity possible here. So we can maximize our economic growth as a nation. Not everybody wants broadband, but businesses need it.

Adelstein said one of the first questions asked by businesses is "is broadband available?" If the answer is no, said Adelstein, the businesses move on, not just from the area, but often even from the country.

With the grants and loans, Adelstein said rural areas won't be losing jobs to India and other countries which can provide easy broadband access, while areas that need a financial leg up to begin with.

The goal is to make sure that all of America is connected to broadband and the particular challenge we face is rural areas where it's very expensive to deploy long lines of fiber or wireless towers that would cover a broad area results in the need for federal assistance to get broadband everywhere.

But it's not just about money. By making broadband more accessible, said Adelstein, it will help to make sure there's no digital divide in America. Building out to rural areas, he said, helps to "make sure that no part of the United States falls behind. That rural citizens have opportunity to access all the economic, cultural, educational and health care opportunities of the internet as much as anybody else."

Adelstein said USDA is making sure technical specifications are getting met and that rates are kept reasonable. Remember, he said, a lot of funding is loans. "We want to get paid back, so we're carefully monitoring that loan portfolio to make sure the taxpayer gets its money back."