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$8.2 million in broadband grants for Indian communities

WASHINGTON - More than 40 percent of broadband technology grants just announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have gone to American Indian and Native Alaska communities.

Thirteen of the 40 grants ($8.2 million out of $20 million) made were to benefit Natives, with the Coeur d'Alene of Idaho receiving the largest amount, $2.78 million, of all grants, Native or non-Native.

Skyline Telecom Inc., which serves the Goshute Indian Tribe in Utah, was the next largest Native recipient, with $850,000.

The San Carlos (Apache) Telecommunications Utility, Inc. got two separate grants, one for $210,000 and one for $146,000 to help wire the members of the Arizona tribe.

Others went to Hood Canal Telephone Co., Inc. of Washington state, $725,000 to benefit the Squaxin Island Tribe; Yukon Telephone Co., Inc., $45,000 to the Athabascan Indians of Alaska; $607,000 to the Ramah band of Navajos, New Mexico; $294,000 to the Tlingit and Haida tribes of Alaska; $498,000 to the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe of Washington; $408,000 for the Kaibab Paiute Tribe of Arizona; $695,000 to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Ore.; $363,000 to UBTA-UBET Communications, serving the Northern Ute tribe of Utah; and $579,000 to the Pueblo of Pojoaque, N.M.

The "Community Connect" program is an administration proposal funded by Congress for $20 million for fiscal year 2002 and $10 million for fiscal year 2003. A total of 300 applications, asking for $185 million, were received by USDA for this round of funding.

Hilda Legg, administrator of Rural Development's Rural Utility Services, a unit of USDA, is preparing to visit the Northwest in early June to highlight the tribal programs, and at least one other high-ranking USDA official may visit the Southwest.

She noted that there was no set aside or preference given to tribes, and complimented them on the quality of their projects and applications.

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Legg noted that the program was designed for "the most remote, most isolated rural areas," and that loan programs often aren't the best devices to use because lack of economic infrastructure hurts repayment prospects.

Lack of existing broadband was a prerequisite for the grants, and Legg said many Native areas were able to demonstrate need.

Key to the program is providing community broadband access, either through a separate building or a room added to a library, after connecting essential services like police, fire and medical.

The Coeur d'Alene grant, she said, will go towards the tribe constructing and employing a broadband system for Plummer, ID and surrounding areas on their reservation. It will employ a DS3 line, and the tribe will build a tribal community technology center in Plummer to make broadband available to all tribal members. The tribe has put up a matching grant of $511,000.

The Ramah Navajo tribe, in Cibola County, N.M., has put up a match of $129,000. The Ramah band plans to use microwave technology to install broadband to all critical institutions on the reservation, and will also wire every single household on the tribal lands.

This was the first set of broadband grants to be awarded by USDA, and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said they will give rural communities "new opportunities for accessing education, health, and economic resources."

The communities selected "do not have access to broadband connectivity for essential services of police, fire protection, hospitals, libraries and schools," said USDA.

In return for the grants, the communities are expected to provide their residents computer and Internet access.

The new grant program is in addition to USDA's existing telecom loan program.