USDA seeking Central Texas applicants for ‘Reconnect Program’ funding for better internet for small towns

GOLDTHWAITE, Texas (KWTX) – The US Department of Agriculture wants small towns in Central Texas to get their hands on some of the $1.2 billion of federal funding available for better internet access.

According to state USDA officials, the COVID-19 pandemic uncovered holes about which Texans have access to broadband: it showed many people living in small towns are being left behind.

“We saw so many issues during the COVID pandemic when people weren’t connected and their access to education, and we’re also about commerce,” said Lillian Salerno, USDA Rural Development State Director in Texas. “We think America, and Texas, thrives with the more business they have, and we want people to live in rural America who are able to start businesses.”

However, in order to start businesses, they need strong, reliable internet, she says.

“We like the fact, as a country, that people want to live outside of cities,” said Salerno. “Not everyone can live in the city, and we think there’s creatives and other folks, and certainly people agriculture, which is our agency, that we need living out in these territories where we grow our food, and in order to do that, we ‘ve got to get access to the internet or we’re not going to grow these communities.”

Starting this week, Central Texas cities, counties, businesses and non-profit organizations can apply for federal money to build-out the internet infrastructure in their rural areas.

“They can apply through the government to have loans and grants so they can build out their internet,” said Salerno.

$1.2 billion from President Biden’s Infrastructure Law is allocated to increase access to high-speed internet for people living in small towns across America.

Salerno wants to make sure Texas gets its share.

“We’d like Texas to get a good chunk of that, and so we’re trying to get the message out far and wide so we get as many applications as we can,” said Salerno. “Why should rural be left behind?”

Small businesses in rural areas that have received past Reconnect funding say connectivity helps them tremendously.

“I can remember before broadband it was really difficult,” said Terra Gardner, owner of Switch Salon, Spa & Boutique in Goldthwaite, and Switch Boutique in San Saba. “Without it, we would be back to paper and pen and missing appointments.”

As a small business owner in two small towns, Gardner says broadband is crucial to her business and clientele.

“Having the two locations, we have to make sure our inventory stays in sync constantly,” said Gardner. “Also, whenever we’re booking appointments at the salon and spa, making sure that our system is up to date and our schedules are up to date, and if someone’s booking an appointment on their cell phone that it matches what we have, so it’s very important to us.”

Since opening pre-pandemic in 2019, Gardner says her goal has been to bring customers big-city services and style without having to actually go to a big city.

“Our intention was really to provide some jobs and really provide something a little bit different, a little more upscale in a smaller area that makes people feel like they’re coming into something that’s a little bit more overdone than just your regular small town salon ,” said Gardner.

Rep. Roger Williams, who represents Texas’ 25th Congressional District, says he’s been working for a long time to bring better internet access to rural communities.

“For years I have worked in Congress to end the digital divide between rural and urban America,” Williams told KWTX in a statement. “Access to broadband has become essential to anyone running a small business, accessing telemedicine services, or wanting flexibility in their children’s education.”

The most recent round of Reconnect Program funding, round three, brought close to $10 million to rural Central Texas in the form of a fiber network which 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 am proud to see federal dollars coming to Lampasas, Texas to expand broadband services,” said Williams.

Salerno said, in round three, Texas more funding than any other state.

However, she says it’s not intended for individual ‘mom and pops’ to apply for the funding: she says stakeholders need to come together.

“It has to be some kind of a coalition of communities, lots of engineering, smart folks around a table that decide that the investment in the internet makes it so their economies are stable, their communities are better off,” said Salerno.

With factors like persistence of poverty, technical expertise, and number of beneficiaries all weighed–it’s a competitive process, Salerno says.

The fourth round of USDA Reconnect Program funding opens Wednesday, Sept. 6 with a deadline of Nov. 2.

More information on the USDA’S Reconnect Program Round 4 funding can be found here.

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