- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is getting $6 million in federal grants to expand broadband Internet service on its northeastern Minnesota reservation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday.

Garden Valley Telephone in the northwestern town of Erskine and Consolidated Telephone in the east-central city of Brainerd will get loans of $12.63 million and $12.27 million respectively to help them improve phone and Internet service, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The Fond du Lac tribal government will contribute over $2 million to the project aimed at making high-speed service available to all homes on the reservation, which currently has DSL service only in a limited area, said Jason Hollinday, the band’s planning director. He said that will support education, economic development and health care - even let more members watch Netflix.

Expanding rural broadband access is “extraordinarily important,” Vilsack said. It creates opportunities for businesses to access wider markets, farmers to get market information, schools to provide distance-learning and for health care providers to consult specialists, he said.

“Frankly, in rural areas, particularly low-populated areas, it’s sometimes difficult to get the private sector - without some incentive or boost - to be able to fund a project,” he said.

The USDA has awarded more than $77 million in grants and over $6 billion in loans since 2009 for rural broadband, bringing new or better access to more than 1.5 million subscribers, Vilsack said. He added that millions more now have access if they choose to use it.

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