USDA Announces Broadband and Infrastructure Support for Indian Country

Tribal infrastructure and Broadband will be getting a needed boost according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Tribal infrastructure and Broadband will be getting a needed boost as U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the USDA was dispersing $9.7 million through its 2501 Program, part of which will be going to tribal communities directly.

Vilsack who participated in the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference, made the announcement in front of tribal leaders from many of the 566 federally recognized tribes. The $9.7 million grants will assist 62 community-based and non-profit organizations, and educational institutions to conduct training, outreach and technical assistance for socially disadvantaged (including tribal) and veteran farmers and ranchers. Twelve of the grants (20 percent) will directly benefit tribal and Native communities.

The 2501 Program, otherwise known as the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, primarily partners with Historically Black Land Grant Universities (1890 Land Grant Institutions), Native American Land Grant Tribal Colleges and Universities (1994 Land Grant Institutions), Hispanic-Serving Institutions of higher education, and community-based and non-profit organizations that work with minority and veteran farmers and ranchers according to a USDA press release.

“We are very much committed to improving economic conditions in Indian country,” Vilsack said while discussing moving tribal communities forward towards sustainable economies at the Conference. “These resources will be added to an aggressive effort that is underway at USDA to expand economic opportunity. I want to make sure that tribal leaders are aware of the $10 billion infrastructure fund that was created recently at the Rural Opportunity Investment Conference in July sponsored by Coe Bank. It’s an opportunity for tribal leaders to work with Coe Bank to address some of the infrastructure needs that are important in Indian country. And the $150 million Rural Business Investment Company which was started with USDA approval and assistance through the Farm Credit Administration. These are resources above and beyond what the government has available for projects in Indian country.”

Since 2010, the 2501 Program has distributed more than $66 million to 250 partners which is administered by the USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach. The program was expanded to include military veterans through the 2014 Farm Bill reauthorization.

The 12 grants, according to the press release, include:

—A $5.4 million loan to upgrade broadband service for residents of New Mexico's Mescalero Apache Reservation. This is the first telecommunications loan USDA has made under the Substantially Underserved Trust Area (SUTA) provision of the 2008 Farm Bill. Congress implemented SUTA to help USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) improve tribal infrastructure including offering tribal borrowers lower interest rates and extended payment terms for RUS loans. It also waives some requirements that applicants provide matching funds for approved projects.

—28 loans and grants totaling $4.1 million to 1994 Land Grant Tribal Colleges through USDA Rural Development's Community Facilities program. This program provides loans and grants to construct, enlarge or improve community facilities for health care, public safety and public services.

—Partnerships between USDA and three Tribal Colleges (Oglala Lakota College, Kyle, South Dakota; Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico; United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, North Dakota) to provide grant writing assistance and other services to help traditionally underserved communities access federal resources as appropriate.