Agriculture Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsage has announced that the United States Department of Agriculture is launching a plan to spur the development of rural broadband networks by prioritizing broadband funding to rural areas in greatest need. The proposed plan would make some changes to how the agency issues its broadband funding and would apply to projects funded through the Community Connect grant program, which is administered by the Rural Utilities Service, part of the Rural Development mission area.
In addition to targeting resources to the most unserved rural communities, the proposed changes would streamline the grant application process. Applicants would be able to use matching funds to cover operating costs of broadband projects (they cannot do so now), and they would be able to use grant funds for an entire geographic area instead of for a single community. The changes also would allow application scoring criteria to include factors such as the speed of proposed broadband service, and the level of service provided to people with disabilities.
USDA, through its Rural Development mission area, has an active portfolio of more than $174 billion in loans and loan guarantees. As CivSource has reported, demand for rural broadband access is steadily growing in the US as both residents and business owners look for more efficient ways to participate in a global economy increasingly dominated by who has broadband access. Rural internet traffic in the first half of 2012 was up over 53% and on pace to maintain steady increases.
“Fast, reliable, affordable broadband is essential for rural communities,” Tonsager said. “It helps businesses remain competitive in the national and global marketplace, and it helps residents have access to the same goods and services as people in metropolitan areas.”