Congressman Emanuel Cleaver hosts rural broadband workshop
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, U.S. Representative for Missouri’s 5th congressional district, hosted a rural broadband workshop on May 2 in conjunction with the United States Department of Agriculture. The meeting, which took place at the Higginsville City Hall, provided information to attendees on eligibilities, requirements and the application process for the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants now available through the USDA. The meeting was open to local governments, clinics, hospitals, telephone and electric cooperatives, and others.
Cleaver was on hand to greet the approximately 25 attendees, and to share some good news about rural broadband funding.
“We have been concerned for a while now that many of our rural areas, across the nation, are limited as far as broadband availability is concerned,” Cleaver said. “We know how important being able to access the Internet is in today’s world. I am happy to be able to tell you that, in the most recent federal budget, the USDA was appropriated an additional $600 million for a pilot program aimed at expanding rural broadband service. … Because this is a federal program, I urge you all to apply for these grants as soon as possible. There will be applications from all across the nation, and I say get your information in as soon as you can. I don’t like the term cutthroat – but this is cutthroat. The funds are available and somebody is going to get them. It might as well be you.”
After speaking for a few more minutes, Cleaver introduced the day’s speaker, Chris Collins. Collins is a general field representative for the USDA’s Rural Development program.
Collins shared the mission of USDA Rural Development: Committed to helping improve the economy and quality of life in rural America. The departments seeks to accomplish its mission by providing loans, grants, and loan guarantee that support essential services, such as housing, economic development, health care, first responder services and equipment, and water, electric and telecommunications infrastructures.
Collins explained that USDA Rural Development is made up of three agencies, each with its own unique programs and objectives. They are the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the Rural Housing Service (RHS) and the Rural Business-Cooperative Service (RBS). Combined, the agencies oversee over 40 programs.
The USDA strategic goals for 2018-2022 include facilitating rural prosperity and economic development. The objective is “To expand rural business opportunity and rural quality of life with access to capital; improve infrastructure, broadband access and connectivity; and support workforce availability.”
“So, with the goals and objectives stated, we started out with a vision and purpose to ‘connect as many rural Americans as possible to enhanced broadband services through our loan and grant programs by September 30, 2018’” Collins said.
That led to a question from Collins: What is broadband? Attendees made several suggestions before Collins said the department’s idea of broadband is simply “High-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access.” For the department’s purposes, the FCC’s definition of 25 Mbps upload speed and 3 Mbps upload speed is used.
Collins went on to say there are $690 million plus available for 2018 in this year’s funding for Telecommunications Infrastructure Program loans. There are also $134 million in the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program. He added that the FY 2018 budget signed by the president on March 3, 2018 included $600 million to conduct a broadband loan and grant pilot program under the Rural Electrification Act. These funds are to be allocated through Community Connect Grants as well as Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants.
The Community Connect program administers grants from $100,000 to $3 million for broadband service deployment in use areas of 20,000 or less population. The services must be completely un-served, and the grants require a 15 percent match from the applicant.
The Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) Program has $49 million in available funds, $29 million of which is designated for helping to address the opioid epidemic in rural America. The program administers grants from $50,000 to $500,000 to fund equipment needed to provide Distance Learning and Telemedicine services. The program offers grants only, and each grant has a 15 percent match requirement.
Since the deadline for applications for the Community Connect Program is May 14, Collins suggested those wanting to apply for a grant focus more on the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program. The deadline on DLT applications is June 4, 2018.
Collins said the distance learning program would also help the expand broadband services to rural areas.
“Under the DLT, broadband transmission facilities will be considered eligible for grant funding as they are an integral part of providing distance learning and telemedicine services,” he said. “Basically, distance learning means the synchronous delivery of curriculum via telecommunications and promoting the connection of students and teachers at remote sites.”
This includes providing educational programs, instruction, or information originating in one area, whether or not that point is rural, to students and teachers who are located in rural areas.
“Telemedicine, on the other hand, is a synchronous telecommunications link to an end user from medical professionals at separate sites in order to exchange health care information for the purpose of providing improved health care services to residents of rural areas.”
He added that telemedicine shows benefit to rural residents either through reduced travel or improved access to services.