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USDA announces grant funding for rural communications

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development office announced Thursday that it is now accepting applications for grants to enhance telecommunications and broadcast services in rural areas.

In particular, funding is available from the Community Connect grant program (up to $13 million), the Distance Learning and Telemedicine program (up to $19.3 million), and the Public Television Station Transition program (up to $2 million).

During a phone interview Thursday, USDA Deputy Undersecretary Douglas O’Brien said the package of grant funding is geared toward nonprofits and municipalities in rural areas that are seeking to tap into the latest broadband Internet infrastructure.

The Community Connect program, for instance, enables municipalities and nonprofits based in rural areas to complete small, individual projects that bring broadband Internet access to their areas. Since Community Connect was created in 2003, USDA has approved more than $142 million in more than 240 projects to bring broadband service to rural communities that lacked it. Grants for the program range from a minimum of $100,000 to a maximum of $3 million.

“If there is a small town — or a very small town with a population in the hundreds — that has yet to access broadband, then the program can provide resources for building the pipeline into a town where there’s a community anchor,” Mr. O’Brien said. “The great advantage is that by building the pipe, it makes it much more affordable for businesses and residents in the community to tap into broadband Internet.”

Grant funding from the Distance Learning and Telemedicine program goes toward municipalities or educational institutions that provide career or educational services, Mr. O’Brien said. Funding could go toward establishing distance learning programs at community colleges in rural areas, for example.

“Certainly, in the north country there are some small towns and colleges that could take advantage of this funding,” Mr. O’Brien said. “There could be a number of projects that could really make an impact in telemedicine. With the way that technology is evolving, the software is getting better and better for distance learning and distance health programs.

The Public Television Transition program helps stations in rural areas acquire, lease or install equipment or software used to complete the transition to digital broadcast signals.

For more information about the three grant programs, visit USDA Rural Development’s website at http://wdt.me/Hfn4UB.

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