Vice President Joe Biden announced the availability of $4 billion in loans and grants to bring broadband to unserved and underserved communities. This is the first round of Recovery Act funding aimed at expanding broadband access to help bridge the technological divide and create jobs building out Internet infrastructure.

"Today's announcement is a first step toward realizing President Obama's vision of a nationwide 21st century communications infrastructure — one that encourages economic growth, enhances America's global competitiveness, and helps address many of America's most pressing challenges," Biden said.

"The Department of Agriculture's Broadband Initiatives Program will bring high-speed Internet service to communities across the country, create thousands of jobs, and improve economic, healthcare, and educational opportunities available in rural communities," Vilsack said. "This funding is a down payment on the President's commitment to bring the educational and economic benefits of the internet to all communities."

Vice President Biden was joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, and Federal Communications Commission Chair Julius Genakowski at a local high school in Wattsburg, Pa., the first stop on the President's National Rural Tour. USDA also announced the launch, where all Americans can follow the progress of the Rural Tour with additional cabinet secretaries in the coming months.

"The Commerce Department's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program will reach the last frontiers of America's information landscape, and the investments it makes in inner-city neighborhoods and rural communities will spur innovation and pave the way for private capital to follow," Locke said. "This first wave of funding will help create jobs, jumpstart additional investment and provide model projects that can better inform our national broadband strategy."

The Recovery Act provided a total of $7.2 billion to the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to accelerate broadband deployment in unserved, underserved and rural areas.

Among the $4 billion in Recovery Act funds announced this week, USDA will use approximately $2 billion to provide grants, while the remaining funds will be used to make up to $7 billion in loans, for a potential total investment in rural broadband of $9 billion. This assistance is especially critical in rural communities where it can provide citizens with job opportunities and help create wealth by driving economic growth, advancing education, fostering innovation, ensuring first responders have the tools they need, and enhancing and improving the delivery of healthcare.

The Recovery Act allocated $4.7 billion for NTIA to implement the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, intended to deploy broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas in the United States, expand public computer center capacity, and encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service.

NTIA and RUS will be accepting applications for loans, grants and loan/grant combinations to be awarded by each agency under a single application form. This collaborative approach will ensure that the agencies' activities are complementary and integrated, make the best use of taxpayer funds, and make it easier for applicants to apply for funding. This is the first of three rounds of funding the Agriculture and Commerce Departments will provide.

This is the first stop on the Obama administration’s Rural Tour. President Obama announced that Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack will lead this tour, and over the next several months will hold discussions throughout the country about how USDA and other federal agencies are working to strengthen rural America.

"Strengthening rural communities is one of USDA's top priorities, and the Rural Tour will enable us to learn from people throughout America about how USDA and the Obama administration are having an impact on the lives of rural Americans," Vilsack said. "I look forward to hearing the thoughts, concerns and stories about each community's vision for its future and collecting ideas about how USDA can better serve these communities."

A modern communications infrastructure that includes broadband access is critical to the growth and success of agriculture and rural America. Such access will help farmers and ranchers in remote locations keep their businesses profitable and viable in the future. — Greg Henderson, Drovers editor.