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U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (above), acknowledging the USDA’s Rural Utility Service hasn’t done “it right” with extending broadband to the nation’s countryside, says that under a new Administration the ag department agency is best suited for meeting a major goal of the federal stimulus package. In the stimulus bill completed late last week,  $4 billion for broadband will be routed through the Commerce Department and $2.5 billion will go to USDA. “Commerce might be able to do some of that in the cities but not in rural America,” Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee said on a conference call with the Daily Yonder and other media.

Harkin said the USDA simply understands rural America better. “The RUS has been doing this kind of thing for 50, 60, 70 years, back to the 1940s,” Harkin said. “They’ve been involved in loans and loan guarantees and things like that since 1949 so they know how to do these things.” Harkin acknowledged that programs in the 2002 farm bill designed to get broadband out to more places in rural America didn’t work as well as planned. “Quite frankly the RUS didn’t do it right,” Harkin said. “I will say that. We had a person in charge that my staff always called ‘Mr. No.’ ‘Mr. No.,’ that’s not his real name, but he always said ‘no’ to putting money into  broadband to communities that really needed it.”

One major problem, Harkin said, is that RUS focused on communities that already had broadband. This  week, The Washington Post published a story in which critics of the RUS questioned whether it the best vehicle to speed wire small towns and farms, many of which are frustrated with obsolete slow service. In response to a line of questioning on the conference call, Harkin said the new farm bill streamlines the RUS process and makes other corrections. Harkin also said that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, understands broadband’s importance in his state — and won’t let any Mr. Nos get in the way of progress.

Douglas Burns

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