WASHINGTON, May 3, 2013 – The Agriculture Department issued a final rule today that aims to better target Community Connect broadband grants to currently unserved rural areas.

    “These rules give communities better access to the benefits that broadband service provides,” Vilsack said. “The Obama administration is working to ensure that rural residents share in the opportunities provided by modern Internet service.”

    USDA said its 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.”

    The changes include:

    • 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; and the most rural areas.

    In support of the USDA action, Michael Romano, senior vice president policy for NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, said his group appreciates the continuing interest in deploying universal service for broadband in rural areas. 

    “These changes will give grant applicants more flexibility to reach the most rural areas of our country that may not show up on census designations or in commercial atlas databases,” Romano said. “They will also allow [Rural Utilities Service] to continue focusing on serving critical community facilities while also helping to guard against the granting of support to applicants seeking to serve only the high-capacity needs of anchor institutions, thus ignoring the needs of businesses and residents in surrounding communities.”

    USDA said RUS plans to publish information on Community Connect funding opportunities, including application deadlines and the amount of assistance available.

    In addition to Community Connect grants, USDA said Rural Development provides loans and loan guarantees to help finance the construction of rural broadband networks.

    For instance, the agency awarded a grant to the Texas County Rural Area Informational Network to install and operate a fiber-to-the-home network in Raymondville, Texas.

    Since its start, 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.


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