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Access to broadband Internet can dramatically alter quality of life and economic prospects in rural areas, including long-neglected tribal nations. New federal funding is helping to fill some of the gaps in the high-speed network.

If you want to share a large digital file in Lovelock, Nev., you might save time if you first gather about 40 miles’ worth of fiber-optic cables and bury them in a shallow trench alongside Interstate 80. That’s the low-tech gruntwork that makes the high-tech future possible, and it’s what’s happening next year for the rural town 90 miles northeast of Reno, thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In July, the USDA announced more than $400 million in grants through its ReConnect Program, which helps fund infrastructure projects that bring high-speed Internet service to rural communities. ReConnect, one of four broadband initiatives that the department runs as part of its longstanding rural development program, is set to receive an influx of about $1.9 billion through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Biden last year. In September, the department will begin accepting applications for a fourth round of ReConnect awards.

The program provides grants to “socially vulnerable” communities, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designation that incorporates factors like poverty, education levels, crowding and disability rates. Local officials in areas that receive the grants say they present a rare opportunity to improve daily life for people in isolated areas while enhancing their long-term economic prospects.

“This is life altering,” says Heidi Lusby-Angvick, director of the Economic Development Authority in Pershing County, Nev., where around 5,000 people will receive new high-speed Internet connections under a $27 million ReConnect grant. “This is going to change the whole landscape of the community.”

Critical Needs for the Remote-Work Era

Lusby-Angvick has been trying to figure out how to bring high-speed Internet to Lovelock and the surrounding areas for more than a decade, participating on state-level committees and repeated studies of the issue. But the problem of slow connections was thrown into especially sharp relief when much of public life shifted to the Internet during the pandemic.

“You would see kids sitting on the sidewalk next to the library out in the weather because they don’t have Internet at home that’s reliable for them to do their schoolwork,” she says.

Even now, Lusby-Angvick says she can’t turn on her camera during Zoom calls for work because the connections are too slow. The main employers in Pershing County are in mining, government and agriculture, along with a medium-security prison. State-of-the-art Internet access is critical for bringing in new industries. But it’s also a necessary quality-of-life component for existing employers trying to hire.

“How do you attract a workforce that is happy here when their kids can’t do their homework?” Lusby-Angvick says.

Studies suggest that investing in high-speed broadband infrastructure has broad social benefits, including better health outcomes and improved job prospects for people in rural areas. It’s even a matter of public safety in some parts of rural Nevada, where state police aren’t able to run license plates when they pull someone over on the highway, says Chris Brandon, executive director of the Western Nevada Development District. At this stage, high-speed connections are critical for every type of industry, from manufacturing to agriculture, not just white-collar professionals working from home.

“Everything is high-tech,” Brandon says. “It’s a deal-breaker for many companies looking to move to Nevada, especially the rural areas. It’s as important as water, sewer and power. Broadband is life or death out there for industries.”

Overdue Improvements in Tribal Communities

Among the nearly 5,000 people who will benefit from new high-speed connections in Pershing County are around 150 members of the Lovelock Paiute Tribe in the Lovelock Indian Colony, according to Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission. Reservations for Indigenous people in Nevada were created in remote and isolated places intentionally by the federal government, Montooth says, and the state’s 28 tribal nations have dealt with a lack of infrastructure funding for decades. In the Lovelock Indian Colony, only the main administration building currently has a high-speed Internet connection.

“Unfortunately, it’s the norm,” says Montooth.

Health clinics on reservations in Nevada tend to treat people when they’re seriously sick or injured, Montooth says. But high-speed Internet is going to provide access to preventative telehealth in those communities.

Broadly speaking, “there’s more attention being paid to the plight of our people” under the Biden administration, Montooth says, and many federal grant programs award more points to applicants that work with tribal governments or who are “doing good things in Indian country.”

More funding is now coming through for broadband access in tribal areas. In addition to the ReConnect grants, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada announced $18 million in funding for broadband infrastructure in 11 communities around the state last week. But still, thousands of Indigenous people in Nevada lack modern Internet access.

“It’s not only a requirement to be competitive and keep up with the world outside of the reservation, but it’s an essential aspect of having a good quality of life,” Montooth says. “Honestly, it’s about time.”

Many More Gaps in the Broadband Network

The $27 million grant for Pershing County will go to Uprise Fiber, a company that has built fiber networks in cities around Washington and Oregon for years and relocated to Reno three years ago. Sam Sanders, the CEO of Uprise, says the company has tended to work with developers of new multifamily buildings to establish fiber networks as part of the construction. It had never done any government work before, but it “got lucky” when one of its employees went looking around for places outside of Reno that had low rates of high-speed Internet access.

Lovelock fit the bill, and it happened to also be a socially vulnerable community, making it eligible for federal grants. Those grants make the work possible, Sanders says. Lovelock is 40 miles from the nearest connection to a high-speed fiber network, so bridging that gap requires lots of upfront labor and material. They’re also an opportunity for companies like Uprise, which want to build out broadband connections in small communities but need funding to do it.

Uprise will start work early next year, and eventually provide fiber connections for 4,884 people, 130 businesses, 22 farms and seven public schools, according to a USDA press release. The company will also be the Internet service provider for those areas. It will offer two plans, including a 200mb plan for $30 a month, which around two-thirds of Lovelock residents will actually be able to access for free through the Affordable Connectivity Program. (Broadband Internet is a minimum of 25mb per second for download speeds, according to the FCC.)

The ReConnect grant will extend the fiber-optic network as far as Lovelock, and officials say the next step is to get broadband out to Winnemucca, another 70 miles north on I-80. New federal funding is the best chance many communities have had to fill some of the many gaps in the high-speed network, Sanders says.

“It’s expensive to build fiber out to these places and to overbuild existing buildings, but that’s why these programs exist,” Sanders says. “The capital expense is the biggest barrier. It’s really the only barrier. If we had a trillion dollars, everyone would have high-speed Internet.”

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Jared Brey

Quelle/Source: Governing, 31.08.2022

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