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Farmers eye broadband in stimulus package

WICHITA, Kan. (AP)--With the nation in the grip of the Great Depression, then-President Franklin Roosevelt used rural electrification as part of his New Deal relief package--gambling that supplying isolated farmsteads with inexpensive power would modernize agriculture, create jobs and stimulate the rural economy.

Decades later, President Barack Obama is placing the same bet by setting aside billions in the stimulus package for rural broadband Internet access--a move farming advocates say will help farmers work more efficiently, manage their operations and connect growers who work on land many miles from the nearest town.

"There are people in Kansas who are alive today who can remember what it was like when rural electrification came to their home," said Mike Matson, spokesman for the Kansas Farm Bureau. "It was a game changer in terms of the way they lived their life and the way they operated their farm. The broadband component has that same potential to have that same level of change."

The stimulus bill provides $7.2 billion for grants, loans and loan guarantees to expand broadband Internet access, mostly for underserved rural areas. Some of the money also is set aside to bring broadband access to libraries and other public centers.

It's unclear how much of the $787 billion package is directly targeted for farming, but Kansas Agriculture Secretary Adrian Polansky estimates that roughly $6 billion in line items are specifically designated for agriculture or rural America spending.

That includes $50 million to upgrade computers at the Farm Service Agency, which administers government farm programs. There is also nearly $173 million for direct farm operating loans, on top of annual budget appropriations, and $750 million in crop disaster funding.

At the same time, farmers would also benefit from some of the bill's provisions for things like biorefineries, watershed projects and tax depreciation breaks.

But it's the Internet that has many farmers buzzing.

Glenn Brunkow, a 38-year-old fifth-generation farmer who grows crops and raises livestock on an isolated farm near Westmoreland in Pottawatomie County, finally got broadband access last year after his rural telephone cooperative ran a fiber optics line to his house.

Brunkow and his wife, Jennifer, also run a side business processing radio frequency identification tags on cattle. The tags can be used by the government to track animals in a disease outbreak.

"We ship large data files over the Internet," Brunkow said. "Before we had high speed, we were using dial-up. We literally would start the file sending before we went to bed at night and hope they went through by the time we woke up the next morning."

Broadband not only improved his business, he said, but the couple is now planning to use a Web site to market their beef. Brunkow can now check weather on his computer to see how fast storms are rolling across the Kansas prairie and access markets and farming experts anywhere in the world.

"We are in a global market now so we need access," he said. "It is good to have a handle on how the crop is doing in South America or Australia or Europe. And the markets change overnight, so access to those markets overnight to see what they are doing is critical, too."

While it remains to be seen whether expanding the rural broadband infrastructure will help the economy, its inclusion in the stimulus package has thrilled many farmers more than any other agriculture-related spending. Kansas Farm Bureau made rural broadband access a top priority in its agenda a year ago.

"The rural broadband dollars invested in bringing broadband Internet access to rural areas of Kansas and the country will stand to have the greatest economic impact of anything in the stimulus that affects agriculture," Matson said.

Connected Nation, a nonprofit group that helps partners communities with broadband providers, points to Kentucky as an example of the economic impact from building out Internet access.

The group inventoried Kentucky's access and found more than 40 percent of the state lacked broadband capability in 2004. It then worked with local community leaders and providers to target access to those areas.

Today, Kentucky's broadband access is at about 95 percent, after an $860 million investment by the industry in telecommunications infrastructure during the past 31/2 years, said Phillip Brown, national policy director for Connected Nation.

Roughly $350 million in the stimulus bill is aimed at mapping out U.S. broadband access.

"There was a realization that a state like Kentucky that had depended on a rural, agrarian agriculture for so long had challenges in its education system, health care systems," Brown said. "It realized one of the answers to making improvements in the state was improving the way it approached technology."

Other states--including Kansas, California, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia--are also working with Connected Nation.

Pricier broadband access by satellite is already available for isolated farmers willing to pay for it.

Among them is Orrin Holle, a 26-year-old Kansas farmer who grows wheat and corn at an isolated farmstead near Atwood in Rawlins County. He lives 22 miles from the nearest town.

Weary of driving several miles to his parent's house whenever he wanted to use the Internet, Holle spent $200 last month in equipment and installation for a satellite broadband system, in addition to a monthly package that can cost between $50 to $100 monthly.

"We check markets once or twice a day, and weather too," he said.

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