Communication a priority for new USDA boss
WASHINGTON Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who has headed a small telecommunications company, said Jan. 30 he will take a personal interest in the Agriculture Department Rural Utilities Service telecommunications and broadband grant and loan pr...
WASHINGTON Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who has headed a small telecommunications company, said Jan. 30 he will take a personal interest in the Agriculture Department Rural Utilities Service telecommunications and broadband grant and loan programs that could be crucial to the future of American agriculture.
In his first meeting with reporters after being sworn in Jan. 28, he included telecommunications in his short list of priorities that will occupy his time during the one year he will hold the post of Agriculture secretary.
"People need to be able to communicate," Schafer said, adding that rural America also needs new communications infrastructure to use "tractors that drive themselves" and other forms of new agricultural technology. The new technology, he said, operates on bandwidth.
"We don't have the bandwith in rural America to be able to do that," Schafer said.
Schafer has a business background. Before entering politics in North Dakota, he ran the Gold Seal Co., a company founded by his father, Harold Schafer, which manufactured Glass Wax, Snowy Bleach and Mr. Bubble bubble bath. After serving as governor of North Dakota from 1993 to 2000, Schafer was one of the founders of Extend America, a telecommunications company focused on building high-speed voice and data infrastructure to five Midwestern states for use in medical care, distance education and commerce in rural areas. Extend America was sold to Sprint in 2006. Extend America's projects included the potential use of balloons instead of cell towers to transmit cell phone signals.
In 2001, Schafer submitted testimony to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that federal telecom policy should be neutral on what kind of technologies could be used.
According to Schafer's financial statement submitted to the Senate in conjunction with the Senate, USDA Rural Utilities Service granted Extend America authorization for a $11.2 million low-interest loan to build broadband services in 87 communities in the Midwest. But the firm was sold to Sprint and the loan commitment was withdrawn.
Schafer said Jan. 30 that the process for applying for that loan "took way too long and cost too much."
Schafer said he believes RUS has changed the rules and that the difficulties he experienced would not happen today. But he added, "I am anxious to get the Rural Utilities Service to work through that process so we can more responsive to the loan applications that are made.
In 2005, the USDA Inspector General's office issued a report that said RUS had not carefully enough defined the difference between rural and suburban areas and had not focused enough resources on communities that have no Internet service. The new House and Senate farm bills contain provisions to extend the broadband program and make it more targeted and more efficient.