GOLDTHWAITE, Texas (KWTX) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants small towns in central Texas to receive a portion of the $1.2 billion in federal funding available for better Internet access.
According to state USDA officials, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed gaps in Texans’ access to broadband by showing that many people living in small towns are being left behind.
“We’ve seen so many issues during the COVID pandemic where people weren’t connected and didn’t have access to education, and we’re also dealing with trade,” said Lillian Salerno, USDA’s Texas state director for rural development . “We believe America and Texas will thrive with more business, and we want people in rural America who are able to start businesses.”
But to start businesses, they need a strong, reliable internet, she says.
“We as a country like the fact that people want to live outside of the cities,” Salerno said. “Not everyone can live in the city and we think there are creative and different people, and certainly farming people, which is our agency, that we need to live in these areas where we grow our food and around To do that, we need to get access to the internet or we won’t be expanding these communities.”
Beginning this week, central Texas cities, counties, businesses and non-profit organizations can apply for federal funds to expand Internet infrastructure in their rural areas.
“They can apply for loans and grants through the government so they can grow their internet,” Salerno said.
$1.2 billion from President Biden’s infrastructure bill will be made available to improve access to high-speed internet for people living in small towns across America.
Salerno wants to make sure Texas gets its share.
“We want Texas to get a good chunk of that, so we’re trying to get the message out there far and wide so we get as many applications as we can,” Salerno said. “Why should the rural be left behind?”
Small businesses in rural areas that have received Reconnect grants in the past say connectivity is helping them tremendously.
“I remember before broadband it was really tough,” said Terra Gardner, owner of Switch Salon, Spa & Boutique in Goldthwaite and Switch Boutique in San Saba. “Without them, we would be back to pen and paper and missed deadlines.”
As a small business owner in two small towns, Gardner says broadband is vital to her business and her customers.
“Because we have two locations, we need to make sure our inventory stays in sync all the time,” Gardner said. “Also when we book appointments in the salon and spa we make sure our system is up to date and our schedules are up to date and if someone books an appointment on their phone that it matches what we do have, so that’s very important to us.”
Since opening ahead of the pandemic in 2019, Gardner says their goal has been to offer customers metropolitan service and style without actually having to go to a big city.
“Our intention was really to create a few jobs and really offer something a little bit different, something more upscale in a smaller area that makes people fall in love with something that’s a little bit more over the top than just your regular small town salon” , Gardner said.
Rep. Roger Williams, representing Texas’ 25th congressional district, says he’s been working to bring better Internet access to rural communities.
“For years, I’ve worked in Congress to end the digital divide between rural and urban America,” Williams said in a statement to KWTX. “Access to broadband has become essential for anyone running a small business, having access to telemedicine services, or wanting flexibility in their children’s education.”
The Reconnect program’s most recent round of funding, round three, raised nearly $10 million in rural central Texas in the form of a fiber optic network that will connect hundreds of people, farms and businesses to high-speed internet in Lampasas and San Saba counties.
“For too long the rural community has been left behind in the digital age, and I’m proud that federal money is flowing to Lampasas, Texas to expand broadband services,” Williams said.
Salerno said in round three, Texas had more funding than any other state.
However, she says it’s not intended for individual “mom and pops” to apply for funding: she says stakeholders need to come together.
“It’s got to be some kind of coalition of communities, lots of tech, smart people around a table deciding that investing in the internet will make their economies stable and their communities better off,” Salerno said.
With factors like persistent poverty, technical expertise, and number of beneficiaries all being weighed, it’s a competitive process, Salerno says.
The fourth round of funding for the USDA Reconnect program begins Wednesday, September 6th with a deadline of November 2nd.
For more information on USDA Reconnect Program Round 4 funding, click here.
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