USDA amends broadband grant program

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The Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Friday issued revisions to a grant program that aims to bring high-speed Internet access to rural regions. The changes will help the department better target rural and needy communities.

The new regulations seek to simplify the grant application process, will let the USDA prioritize rural and poor areas and will increase flexibility for using matching funds that grant applicants have to provide.

Previous applicants had to design proposals to serve communities recognized by either the census or the Rand McNally atlas, but the program revisions will let them develop new custom service territories. According to the rule, the previous method "did not accommodate some of the most rural communities, which are not census designated places or recognized by a commercial Atlas."

"These rules give communities better access to the benefits that broadband service provides," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. "The Obama Administration is working to ensure that rural residents share in the opportunities provided by modern Internet service."

"The new rules provide flexibility to address the dynamic broadband needs of rural Americans and enhance the Agency’s ability to target funds to areas where they are needed the most," the department asserts in the rule.

The USDA has used the program, called the Community Connect Grant Program, to invest $112 million in 229 broadband infrastructure projects since it was first implemented in 2004.

The rules were published in the Federal Register on Friday.