USDA sets $116.7M in grants for rural broadband, telehealth

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The Department of Agriculture is investing $116.7 million in grants and loans to provide a high-speed broadband infrastructure for rural communities in 14 states and territories.

The Broadband ReConnect program offers grants, loans and combinations thereof to improve rural e-connectivity. Service areas in the first wave of funding include a total of 21,803 households, according to USDA. However, the agency is reviewing additional applications and expects to announce approved projects on an ongoing basis.

In all, USDA is investing in 133 distance learning and telemedicine projects in 37 states and two U.S. territories.

“Internet access is no longer an amenity,” says John Huffman, rural development state director at USDA. “It is an essential component of daily life and as important to rural communities as gaining access to electricity was a century ago,” he adds. “Small and remote communities face challenges in connecting homes, farms and businesses to this vital resource.”

For example, $6 million has been approved for 650 new customers in Wheeler and Grant counties in Oregon. The Oregon Telephone Corporation will use a ReConnect program grant to lay 89 miles of fiber with network speeds from 30 megabits per second to 1 gigabyte per second, enabling Voice-over Internet Protocol and video services.

Overall, the Oregon grant will give fiber optic network connectivity to 418 households, 22 businesses, 22 farms, three schools and two fire stations.

USDA further is heavily investing in the rural region of Yakutat in Alaska, spending almost $19 million in high-speed broadband to improve or bring e-connectivity to 270 households.

“Geographic isolation should no longer be a barrier to economic prosperity, especially here in Alaska,” says Jerry Ward, the state director for rural development. “With ReConnect, the state is bridging the digital divide and bringing modern communications to rural Alaskan communities like Yakutat,” Ward adds.

Mercy Health also is benefitting from the USDA grants, which the sprawling delivery system will use to support distance learning and telemedicine technology. Grants just shy of $500,000 will enable services to reach more than 210,000 residents in nine rural community hospitals in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Nearly half of the communities that Mercy serves are in remote rural areas. “These residents don’t have access to the level of care found in larger cities, and, in some communities, they have no medical care,” explains Mark Saxon, vice president of clinical operations for Mercy Virtual.

“If you live in a small community and you have a stroke, you sometimes have to travel 50 to 100 miles one way to the nearest urban area to see physicians highly trained in stroke care,” says Gavin Helton, MD, senior vice president of population health at Mercy. “Many rural communities don’t have the resources to provide this level of care. But with high-tech, powerful cameras providing live video, someone in Healdton, Okla., can be virtually seen by a Mercy doctor hundreds of miles away.”

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