Six telephone companies in rural Minnesota will receive more than $42 million in federal grants and loans to provide broadband Internet access for more than 23,000 customers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the financial assistance, part of $3.8 billion in last year's economic stimulus law that was earmarked to improve Internet service in rural areas nationwide. Many of those areas have lacked the high-speed access that has become common in many urban and suburban areas.

Providing that access was one of President Obama's economic talking points on the campaign trail two years ago.

The Minnesota projects generally are clustered in the thinly populated western and northwestern regions of the state.

In a prepared statement, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the money "will give rural Americans access to the tools they need to attract new businesses, jobs, health care and educational opportunities" and provide a "gateway" for businesses and public institutions in rural America.