Agriculture takes ideas for grants

The Agriculture Department began accepting applications late last month from educational institutions and health care providers for grants to help them set up distance learning and telemedicine projects.

In accordance with Vice President Al Gore's commitment to offer those who live in rural areas access to the National Information Infrastructure, the program will offer $7.5 million in federal grants that will be matched with state and local money, a USDA spokeswoman said.

Adam Golodner, deputy administrator at Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS), said the grants generally are used to connect people in outlying areas to services and expertise traditionally available only in or around large cities.

"Most of the folks who receive grants for medical applications are hooking rural clinics to major medical centers in urban or suburban areas, and mostly through dedicated T-1 lines," he said. "On the education side, it is mostly interactive video to allow schools to share teachers and resources."

Golodner said the department began distributing grants in fiscal 1993 and has since handed out $27.5 million through 90 grants in 39 states. He said grantees received an additional $55 million in local money.

He added that RUS also may begin offering loans next year for distance learning and telemedicine projects if Congress approves legislation authorizing that.

Golodner emphasized that grants will go first to communities that demonstrate the greatest financial need and that grants would serve mainly as seed money to get projects off the ground. "They all must be sustainable," he said. "We are not putting money into a proj-ect that will go away when federal funding ends."

'Rural Character'

USDA will show preference to proposals that serve areas with greater "rural character," show the greatest documented need for the proposed services, demonstrate the ability to connect the project to networks beyond rural areas and display the most cost-effective design, the spokeswoman said.

Hunter Thompson, project director for distance learning at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, said the university received $484,000 from USDA in 1993 to bring six vid-eoconferencing systems on-line in rural areas throughout the state and connect those locations to the Sonet-based North Carolina information highway. He said project managers at three of the six sites have gone beyond their initial education and medical goals to give their communities Internet and Web access.

For example, town leaders in Whiteville, N.C., have created a communitywide entrance to the state Sonet backbone by offering 56 kilobit/sec access points to area businesses and medical facilities, Thompson said.

Projects continue to evolve, he pointed out.

"It takes time; you don't come out of the gate full swing," he said. "We're talking about rural communities that didn't have access to the Internet or World Wide Web before, and they are now wiring entire schools to the North Carolina information superhighway."

Schools, Health Sites Favored

Golodner said most of the USDA grants are used for equipment installed in schools and health care facilities and not to provide the communications infrastructure to connect the facilities to a public network. He also said RUS asks those who receive grants to cite performance-based goals and objectives; the agency will periodically evaluate the progress made toward achieving them.

RUS will accept applications until Aug. 5 and announce awards in September, Golodner said. Projects would have to be set up within six to nine months after the announcement.

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