USDA Announces Funding to Improve 911 and Emergency Communications Services in Rural America

Staff Writer
Aledo Times Record

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this month USDA’s effort to change federal regulations that will help rural communities obtain advanced emergency communications services, including 911 access, to better respond to emergencies and disasters. These changes will help rural communities obtain next generation 911 services necessary to maintain the security and safety of rural residents and businesses.

"As we mark the 10th anniversary of an event that cost thousands of American lives, we continue to work to ensure the safety of our rural communities," Vilsack said.

"Rural communities need to have telecommunications networks that work best when they are most needed…at times when public safety is critical locally as well as nationally,” said Colleen Callahan, state director for USDA Rural Development. “A change in the rules would make it possible for Rural Development to help rural first responders to secure the tools they need to maintain mission-critical voice and broadband service during times of emergency or during natural disasters."

Rural Development has supported local efforts to upgrade the capacity of local emergency call centers through the agency’s community facility grant program.  It has awarded grants to local governments for 911 equipment to be used at local call centers that forward emergency information to fire, police and ambulance providers.  Grants were awarded to communities such as Gibson City and to Pulaski and Saline counties.

USDA published in the Federal Register interim telecommunications loan program eligibility requirements on financing the construction of interoperable, integrated public safety communications networks in rural areas. Funding for the program will be provided by USDA Rural Development through the Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

The new eligibility criteria would allow USDA to leverage public and private resources to speed the rural deployment of dual-use public safety/commercial wireless networks, address homeland security communications needs along America's rural international borders, and finance enhanced 911 capabilities for carriers and communities. Advantages include the ability to precisely locate rural wireless 911 calls, contact 911 via text message, or send emergency responders photos or videos of crime scenes or accidents. The new regulation would also give RUS ability to finance wireless upgrades for public safety and security.

USDA is committed to helping rural communities obtain high-quality broadband service that can also be used by emergency responders at the state, local and federal level. Interoperability, or the ability of emergency responders from various agencies and jurisdictions to communicate during emergencies, is a priority of the Obama Administration.

"Rural telecommunications providers receiving RUS loan financing have successfully built out high-capacity fiber networks capable of carrying voice and data traffic to and from wireless towers and other mobile base stations," RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein said. "These fiber backhaul networks are necessary to enable the deployment of mobile voice and data services to rural and urban communities. This new lending authority complements the Administration's broader efforts to improve emergency communications throughout the nation."

In the last two years, Rural Development has awarded broadband funding in Illinois to Shawnee Telephone Company, Alhambra-Grantfork Telephone Company, Woodhull Telelphone Company, Oneida Telephone Company, Wabash Telephone Cooperative, Convergence Technologies, and Norlight Telecom which is now part of Windstream Communications.  The funding is helping to bring high-speed broadband to tens of thousands of rural Illinois residents.

Since taking office, President Obama's Administration has taken significant steps to improve the lives of rural Americans and has provided broad support for rural communities. The Obama Administration has set goals of modernizing infrastructure by providing broadband access to 10 million Americans, expanding educational opportunities for students in rural areas, and providing affordable health care. In the long term, these unparalleled rural investments will help ensure that America's rural communities are repopulating, self-sustaining and thriving economically.

Rural Development has more than 40 programs that foster growth and economic stability in rural areas by providing affordable financing and technical assistance.  Support is available for regional food systems, broadband and biofuel infrastructure, homeownership, business development and community needs.  More information on USDA Rural Development programs is available on the web at www.rurdev.usda.gov/il.