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Rural Schools To Benefit from USDA Broadband Grants

ARRA funds, coupled with private investment, will bring wired and wireless broadband to rural and Native American communities.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wednesday revealed 126 new infrastructure projects designed to bring broadband connectivity to schools, homes, and businesses in rural areas and Native American lands. Combined, the projects represent $1.2 billion in federal stimulus spending, impacting 38 states, including tribal areas.

The projects are all aimed at bringing wired or wireless broadband access to unserved or underserved communities and, in many cases, provide discounted services to "anchor" institutions, such as schools and libraries. The range and scope of the projects vary widely, from copper and fiber land lines to fixed and mobile wireless broadband.

A $146.8 million project in Vermont will bring LTE wireless broadband to "virtually every unserved anchor institution, unserved home, and unserved business throughout Vermont," as well as parts of New York and New Hampshire, according to USDA. LTE ("Long Term Evolution"), a specification of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), offers real-world end user data throughput comparable to other broadband technologies. Although actual performance can be difficult to pin down for LTE, a Motorola whitepaper from last year cited an example of end user data throughput at 3 Mbps to 8 Mbps, depending on proximity to a tower. More optimistic figures have also been put forth for LTE, and theoretical maximums are even higher. (LTE will be superseded by LTE-Advanced when and if that standard is finalized, as expected, in 2011, offering a theoretical maximum of 1 Gbps.) About $116.8 million of the project will be publicly funded, supplemented with $30 million in private funding.

A total of 12 projects of the 126 will involve deploying "3.9G" (not quite 4G, also known as "pre-4G") technologies in rural areas, but only the Vermont project was specified as LTE.

Nearly $4 million will be spent to bring WiMAX mobile broadband access to rural communities in Alabama, impacting about 50,000 individuals and 5,500 businesses and bringing discounted services to anchor institutions in those areas. WiMAX is a competitor to LTE in the 3.9G/pre-4G category. It's based on the IEEE 802.16 standard, offering end user performance comparable to LTE, with consistent, real-world performance reported at about 5 Mbps for downloads. (Like LTE, WiMAX is heading for a 1 Gbps theoretical maximum in its next iteration, via the 802.16m standard that's currently in progress.)

In Michigan, $26.5 million will fund fixed wireless broadband WiMAX (with fiber optic backhaul between towers) to bring high-speed connectivity to schools and colleges, libraries, and other community institutions, as well as health care facilities, government facilities, and homes.

Eleven of the 12 3.9G/pre-4G fixed and mobile wireless deployments included in today's USDA's announcement will be based on WiMAX technologies.

On the wired side of things, over in Tennessee and Kentucky, a $123.8 million project will span 11 counties, bringing up to 20 Mbps fiber broadband to thousands of homes and businesses and about 100 community institutions in the western portions in those two states. Forty-three of the announced USDA grants will fund fiber deployments.

"The broadband projects announced today will give rural Americans access to the tools they need to attract new businesses, jobs, health care and educational opportunities," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement released Wednesday. "The Obama Administration understands that bringing broadband to rural America provides a gateway for businesses and key anchor institutions--such as libraries, schools, public safety and community centers--to provide services to thousands of Americans. These projects will create jobs building these networks, and the completed systems will provide a platform for rural economic growth for years to come."

Individual award amounts in this latest announcement ranged from less than $250,000 to more than $123 million, excluding private funding. Programs will be carried out in Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Brief descriptions of all the broadband projects can be downloaded in a PDF file from USDA's site here.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .