Many parts of the United States remain without high-speed options because the cost-benefit of building the infrastructure in far-flung places hasn't been high enough for private providers. So in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year, $2.5 billion was earmarked for the USDA to make high-speed Internet more universal - though not quite as universal as Finland has. The Commerce Department, through its National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is giving out another $4.7 billion for broadband.
In fact, U.S. broadband speeds lag behind many other "first-world" nations. A Speed Matters test showed that only 20 percent of Americans receive broadband speeds equal to that of the top-tier nations in broadband speed - South Korea, Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands. Another 18 percent don't even have access to speeds that meet the FCC's definition of broadband: a consistent "always on" connection of at least 768 kilobits per second downstream.
The newly funded USDA projects are in Alaska, Alabama, California, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia and are a mix of grants and loans. They include:
• More than $16 million in Alleghany County, Va., to provide fiber-based broadband infrastructure. The goal is to foster economic development by providing the ability for people to work from home, and to improve the health, education and public safety of county residents.
• Nearly $4 million for Butler Telephone Co., in Butler, Ala., to provide high-speed DSL to remote homes in its territory, built so it can be easily upgraded in the future.
• About $3 million (and another $1.5 million in matching funds) to build a fiber-optic network in Meriden and Archer, Iowa, with speeds exceeding 20 Mbps.
According to the Associated Press, the USDA's Rural Utilities Service has given out $363.7 million for 22 broadband projects across the country.
The NTIA has awarded about $200 million in grants for 15 projects.
Applications for the next — and final round — of broadband funding from the USDA are due by March 15.