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Brian Smith of the USDA Rural Development talks about setting up Rural Broadband/Telemedicine.

CRISS:  This is Southwest Spotlight on the KENW Public Radio Network. With me now is Brian Smith, who is with the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development. And Brian, thank you for coming and if you would tell our listeners about Telemedicine, the Telemedicine program that you have grants for.

SMITH:  Sure, right now, we have a program open through the beginning of June for applications, and it's a distance learning and telemedicine program. And its program that we have that allows for the purchase of equipment to enter eligible entities to either provide educational or Telemedicine services. And you know, we kind of put emphasis on tribal programs or programs that are geared towards opioid use disorder. So, it's been a great program; it's used throughout New Mexico. And you know I think highly of the program.

CRISS:  And we do have quite a listening area; we do have the Chiricaghua Apache in our area. And lots and lots of people out in local areas that need Telemedicine. Sometimes they have a bad headache, they have some kind of symptom they'd like to ask a question, so it's going to be great for them.

SMITH:  Definitely, definitely. It will be. Another benefit of the program is that you know maybe when you live in a rural area, it's not practical. Or, you know, economically feasible for a doctor to come out to that area. You know they have to travel turn travel time involved in getting out there. So it can also afford you the opportunity to see a specialist that may not be available in your area before driving to, say: Albuquerque or El Paso or Las Cruces. Or you know one of the areas where maybe there are more specialists in your area. So, it's been great for that.

CRISS:  The given example shows that I have a friend who lives in Santa Fe and used Telemedicine from his house. He had a very bad headache. And he called in, and the doctors spoke with him; gave him advice, and he took care of it. It was a migraine, and he took care of it. So, it does work for a lot of different things.

SMITH:  Yeah, I love to hear stuff like that. And the educational portion has been good too. We had one grant at the Santa Fe Indian school where they went ahead and actually were teaching native languages back to the various pueblos. And so, they would have you know about age groups they would have speakers; those who wanted to learn the native language from their tribes. And they were actually teaching these through distance learning. And that was another one that I really liked. So, kind of the possibilities are really endless when you get that kind of availability to something that's just not in your area.

CRISS:  That is great, that is great. We have a number of people in our listening area who qualify as rural. And you have a project going with Plateau Cellular, which deals with re re-hooking or wiring up broadband. Can you talk about that?

SMITH:  Sure. So, it's actually yeah under their parent company name, which is ENMR. And it's actually for their standard customers. It's a fiber project. So, what they're doing is they're taking some of the areas that they picked out that are just, you know, really cost-prohibitive. It just doesn't make financial sense to serve these. And you know we, as rural utility service, understand that. And so, we've been having yearly grants and loans available to pay for those types of connections. And so ENMR Plateau has basically taken a bunch of areas that are extremely remote. I've been out to some of these areas. And they're hooking up those last customers to fiber. So what fiber is basically the top of the technology, and the speeds can be nearly limitless if you have the proper electronics to do it. And so, to think that someone in an extremely rural area in New Mexico can have a better connection than I have here in the Phoenix area. I mean, that's pretty exciting.

CRISS:  Yes, it is.

SMITH:  I am on copper where I am at. 

CRISS:  Yes, it is, and I cover that area, and I can tell you that it is really remote in some of those places. So, it's wonderful that you're doing this. Do you have- how long will that program continue? How long will it take you to finish?

SMITH:  Well, that one is still going through some of the environmental review processes. But I'm thinking it's probably going to be about a three to five-year build-out for them to complete it. We also have another round that will likely be opening for funding for service providers. And that one will probably come out in August or September, and it's not for sure. There's a pilot program at the beginning and so after two years of regulation had to be put in place. So, regulation is going through finalization but hopefully will keep getting more funding with everything going on. You know broadband is a hot topic, especially after COVID hit. And you know we want to help in any way we can to get the services out there. And I think there's no one who can debate anymore whether or not it's needed service, and I think we all know how important it is.

CRISS:  Absolutely.  And thank you very much, Brian, for being here and talking with me. And hope that you stay cool.

SMITH:  Hey, thank you so much. I appreciate it, and you have a great day.

CRISS:  This is Don Criss, and this has been Southwest Spotlight.