A new group to improve and facilitate internet access and investment will be backed by Commerce Department head Penny Pritzker and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the White House said Monday.
The Broadband Opportunity Council, a group that includes 25 different government agencies, will have a four-pronged focus on ensuring Americans have access to affordable broadband.
To satisfy this focus, Vilsack and Pritzker will be tasked with leading discussion on ways the government can engage with industry to support communities needing broadband investments; identify regulatory barriers; and review ways existing programs or tools could improve broadband service.
While President Obama's national goal of providing 98% of Americans with high-speed 4G mobile broadband is now complete, the White House said this new Council will focus more on wired connections for homes and businesses.
"Access to broadband is not a luxury, it's a necessity," National Economic Council Director Jeffrey Zients said, highlighting the recent move by the FCC on net neutrality that he said should "level the playing field" by allowing communities more freedom to create their own broadband services.
In addition to improvements for citizens and business owners in rural areas, farmers and ranchers may benefit from the findings of the new council through expanded, faster internet access, Vilsack said.
"In many parts of the country farmers are still getting information concerning market prices with a slight delay," Vilsack said. "High-speed broadband provides them real-time information from which to make decisions."
A report on the group's findings and specific recommendations will be provided to the White House within 150 days, Vilsack said. He pledged to meet that deadline.
Also Monday, USDA said it was providing $35 million in broadband infrastructure loans to utilities in Iowa, Arkansas and New Mexico. The loans will be used to upgrade copper systems to fiber and improve service to subscribers in the program areas.
Vilsack expected 25 to 30 more projects will be announced throughout the year through the Broadband Loan and Infrastructure program; others may be funded through the farm bill's Title II, which provides for infrastructure improvements.
Monday's Council announcement is part of the President's January pledge to relieve regulatory hurdles that may limit internet access.
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