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New $600 Million Federal Program Targets Tech Needs of Rural Areas

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Attention rural communities with major internet connectivity needs: Are you looking to upgrade your broadband? The U.S. Department of Agriculture—yes, Agriculture—may have a grant and loan program for you.

The funding is available through a new, $600 million pilot program, called the Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program, which Congress created last year. The money includes $200 million in grants, $200 million in low-interest loans, and $200 million in loan-grant combinations.  

The program is for rural communities with really slow internet service, or no service at all. That's defined as connection speeds of less than 10 megabytes per second download and less than 1 megabite per second upload. To put that in perspective, that speed would make it difficult to stream a video on say, Netflix, without service interuptions. 

School districts aren't explicitly on the list of eligible applicants, which include telecommunications companies, utilities, internet service providers, and state and local government agencies.

The deadlines for this funding are coming up soon. Communities have until May 31 to apply for the grants-only package, until June 21 to apply for the loan/grant combination, and until July 12 for the low-interest loans. More information and applications can be found here.

This obviously isn't the federal government's only investment in broadband, including for underserved communities. The feds also operate the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries cover the cost of internet and other telecommunications services. That program has helped fuel huge gains in school internet connectivity: 44.7 million students now have access to internet speeds of at least 100 kilobytes per second, up from 4 million students in 2013.  

And Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, is hoping to increase that investment through a $100 billion new infrastructure bill that would help districts cover the cost of both brick-and-mortar and digital upgrades.

Want more context on this topic? My colleague Ben Herold did a deep dive into the connectivity issues of remote districts and their impact on teaching and learning

Image: Getty Images


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