U.S. Senate Allocates $425 Million for Rural Broadband Expansion

The new grant-loan program allows companies, municipalities, Native American tribes and other organizations to apply for funding to build or improve broadband technology.

by Marcus Wolf, Watertown Daily Times / August 13, 2018

(TNS) — The U.S. Senate hopes to aid rural areas across the country in expanding access to broadband Internet with $425 million allocated in its agriculture appropriations bill.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced the funds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Services’ broadband grant-loan pilot program Tuesday. The new grant-loan program, created with funds in the omnibus spending bill passed in March, allows companies, municipalities, Native American tribes and other organizations to apply for funding to build or improve broadband technology in rural and tribal areas or acquire the facilities and equipment for it.

According to a release from the senators, more than a third of residents in rural areas and 41 percent of tribal residents lack broadband Internet.

“Internet access has become one of our most basic necessities, yet some rural communities still don’t have access to this essential technology,” Sen. Gillibrand said in a statement. “People, schools, hospitals and businesses all rely on high-speed Internet to succeed at work and have a good quality of life.”

The bill also includes $53 million for grants to purchase transmission facilities, interactive video equipment, audio equipment, computer hardware and technical assistance to expand telemedicine services in rural areas.

Of the $53 million, $20 million would be dedicated to efforts to combat the opioid crisis. Kevin Lynch, CEO of Slic Network Solutions, said in an email that having broadband could help connect addicts and their families to hospitals, medical practitioners, schools and counselors.

“Ultimately broadband connects people. It provides opportunities for education, employment and economic growth,” he said. “Those connections can help counter some factors that contribute to addiction.”

Companies like Slic, Nicholville, Mohawk Networks, Hogansburg and others have been broadening their broadband Internet service throughout the Northern New York in recent years with help from federal funding and support from officials like Sens. Schumer and Gillibrand and U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Willsboro.

Slic has been working on expanding broadband access to an additional 6,775 properties in parts of St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton, Essex, Washington and Warren counties, an effort aided this year with $26 million in state funds. Mr. Lynch said the company recently added customers in Bellmont, Lyon Mountain and Schroon Lake and has been building fiber optics in Black Lake, Newcomb, Minerva and its home of Nicholville.

Should lawmakers pass the agriculture appropriations bill into law, Mr. Lynch said, Slic may consider applying for a portion of the $425 million for its expansion efforts.

“We carefully consider all opportunities to expand our coverage to the underserved and unserved communities in and around the North Country and we are hopeful that this will be an excellent opportunity to continue fulfilling our mission of connecting communities to the world,” he said.

“Our major build outs in St. Lawrence and Franklin County in the 2012-2015 time frame were funded in part by the USDA RUS programs. The funding was transformational in the growth of our company and the quality of life for the households and businesses who were available to subscribe to fiber-based broadband in the North Country.”

©2018 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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