The United States Department of Agriculture has announced new rules to better target grants for broadband Internet access in rural areas.
USDA Rural Development’s Community Connect Grant program serves rural communities where broadband service is least likely to be available, but where it can make a tremendous difference in the quality of life for citizens.
- Simplify the application process by requiring a single project summary and map.
- Allow grant applicants to use a USDA web-based mapping tool to define their proposed service area. The old rules did not accommodate some of the most rural communities, which often are not Census-designated places or were not recognized by a commercial atlas.
- Give grant applicants more flexibility on the types of resources, in-kind services and monetary contributions that can be used to meet the 15 percent matching fund requirement.
- Allow USDA to consider giving funding priority to projects in:
- persistent poverty counties;
- communities experiencing population declines;
- the most rural areas.
USDA’s Rural Utilities Service plans to publish information on Community Connect funding opportunities, including application deadlines and the amount of assistance available, in the Federal Register soon.
In addition to Community Connect grants, USDA Rural Development provides loans and loan guarantees to help finance the construction of rural broadband networks. For example, USDA Rural Development awarded a Community Connect grant to the Texas County Rural Area Informational Network (TRAIN) to install and operate a Fiber-to-the-Home network in Raymondville, Texas. The grants helped fund a Community Center called the Public Access Community Room. TRAIN also is providing broadband service to community residents and businesses.
Since its inception, the Community Connect program has funded 229 projects with USDA investments of $122 million. In 2012, USDA assistance led to improved broadband service nationwide for nearly 65,000 rural households, businesses, and community institutions – such as libraries, schools and first responders. Information about the rules is available at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-05-03/pdf/2013-10502.pdf.
“These rules give communities better access to the benefits that broadband service provides,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “The Obama Administration is working to ensure that rural residents share in the opportunities provided by modern Internet service.”