USDA's Rural Utilities Service, would get about one-fourth of the $6 billion Congress has targeted in the stimulus plan to wire rural America with Internet service. But the RUS is being called on the carpet because of past failures. Since 2002, funds handled by the agency went to wire several luxury subdivisions near Houston, and pay for pilot lessons for an Internet service provider's president and treasurer, while other dollars have yet to yield results.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the agency has corrected the operational problems noted in a 2005 inspector general's report. He said his new staff has experience bringing broadband lines to rural areas and should be given a chance to prove their ability to govern such a program. As Iowa governor, Vilsack said he had worked with his new chief of staff, John Norris, to bring broadband access to 90-95% of the people in the state.
Critics of the rural utilities service fund said the president's goal could be derailed by lax oversight at USDA. They argue that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the tech-policy making arm of the White House, has expertise in administering large grants and is better suited to deal with wireless, fiber optics and cable modem service.