You've probably never heard of La Valle. It's a town of about 1,300 people in southwest Wisconsin that's a two-hour drive from Milwaukee. But it may as well be on the other side of the world when it comes to phone and Internet access.
La Valle, like many rural communities in America, have been passed over by the country's major communications providers, leaving the small town to fend for itself. And it has done so tremendously: Residents can buy fiber-optic Internet from the customer-owned LaValle Telephone Cooperative at speeds of up to 60 megabits per second — fast enough to rival the connections many Americans enjoy elsewhere.
"Being in a rural area, we've got hills, rocks," said Greg Rockweiler, an office manager and a 26-year veteran of the company. "Building fiber is difficult at times."
That's why this week the co-op will be getting a $7.61 million loan from the federal government. It's part of a package announced Monday that will deliver $85 million in new funding nationwide for rural Internet access, and La Valle is one of eight providers to be receiving a loan or grant.
You might think that the money is coming from some telecom-related agency like the Federal Communications Commission. It's not. Instead, it's coming from a surprising source: the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"We're trying to live up to the president's commitment on [broadband]," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in an interview. "Focus on the areas that don't have it today or on those who don't have many telecom facilities at all.
"People are surprised we do home loans," Vilsack added. "People are surprised we build schools and hospitals, and that we equip them."
But despite its lower profile on broadband, the USDA, along with other federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, are taking on a bigger role in expanding Internet access. Like consumers, federal officials are increasingly aware that the Web is a basic necessity: for folks in the so-called gig economy, for schoolchildren, for low-income Americans who can't afford a PC and, yes, even for farmers.
The Agriculture Department is lending more than $12 million as part of its funding announcement to the Garden Valley Telephone Co., a co-op based in rural Minnesota. Farming today is far more high-tech than in previous generations, said Tim Brinkman, Garden Valley's general manager, which is why the company began its push into next-generation broadband by connecting its farming customers to high-speed fiber optics.
The new injection of cash will allow Garden Valley to upgrade the rest of its coverage area, which serves on average two households per square mile. The buildout promises to be costly without government help, but the company is determined to meet new federal standards for broadband that set minimum download speeds at 25 Mbps and upload speeds at 3 Mbps.
"With the FCC looking to increase both download and upload requirements," said Brinkman, "it's important for us to build out fiber, and we aren't able to do that without those loan programs."
USDA's announcement Monday is the latest in a six-year push to get rural Americans on broadband. The agency estimates that its efforts have connected 6 million Americans to the Web, with 1.5 million signing up for service as a result. Its loans and grants, funded through congressional appropriations and the Recovery Act, target mainly smaller communities of 5,000 residents or fewer, but these are people that have either never had Internet access before, or had it in very limited circumstances.
Last week, the Housing Department announced a pilot project to provide free or discounted Internet access and training to residents of public housing. Under the initiative, companies such as Google and Cox Communications will be able to help hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans get onto the Web.
That seemingly random agencies are becoming increasingly involved in Internet access is a reflection of how unevenly broadband access is distributed in the United States. Although the Internet is a fact of life for the young and affluent, a persistent gap in adoption remains among the poor, elderly and uneducated.
Some of these disparities are simply the result of industry dynamics that discourage large Internet providers from offering better services. Americans who live in low-income areas are unlikely to be able to afford the pricey packages that allow wealthier people to binge on "House of Cards," for example, leaving them out in the digital cold. In the case of La Valle and Garden Valley, the low density of potential customers makes it unlikely that a large provider will make much of an effort to connect them to the Web.
In these places, said Vilsack, "there isn't a lack of competition for business. There is a lack of business."