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USDA Community Connect Project Brings the World to a Rural Ohio Village

Pennsylvania Law School student Levi Morris, shown with his mother, Becky, can now continue his education from home thanks to the broadband service provided to his town through the USDA Community Connect program. USDA photos by Heather Hartley.

Pennsylvania Law School student Levi Morris, shown with his mother, Becky, can now continue his education from home thanks to the broadband service provided to his town through the USDA Community Connect program. USDA photos by Heather Hartley.

It’s long been said, “You can’t go home again.” It looks like someone forgot to tell Levi Morris!

Morris, 24, is a law school student at the University of Pennsylvania in big-city Philadelphia. But he was raised in the tiny Southeast Ohio village of Stafford; nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in rural Monroe County. He says he loves Philadelphia and may even choose an urban lifestyle once he graduates, but right now, his heart is in Ohio.

When summer break presented an opportunity to collaborate with one of his law professors on a book about family law, Levi wondered if the intense Internet-based research would simply prove too much for his parents’ satellite service.

“I tried to do a project last summer,” Morris explained, “but the satellite connection was unreliable. It would go down on cloudy and rainy days and it was painfully slow. It got frustrating.”

Working together, Crystal Broadband Networks, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, and a Community Connect grant has changed everything. Awarded in 2011, the funds are being used to bring wireless Broadband services to Stafford, home to about 25 families. In keeping with grant guidelines, this includes two years of free Internet service for the volunteer fire department and the construction of Stafford’s new Community Connect Center. Now, all Levi has to do is pop over the hill and into the modest, neat-as-a-pin building, where he can carry out high-speed research and collaborate effortlessly with his professor.

“The Community Connect grant was created with villages like Stafford – and people like Levi – in mind,” said Acting Under Secretary for Rural Development Doug O’Brien. “This is the modern-day equivalent of what rural electric service meant to our grandparents: impacting health and safety, enhancing local economies and connecting loved ones through technology.”

A ribbon cutting for the new Stafford, Ohio Community Connect Center.  (Far right, State Director Tony Logan. Front row,  fourth from the right, Acting Under Secretary for Rural Development Doug O’Brien).  The center will provide free broadband for two years. USDA photos by Heather Hartley.

A ribbon cutting for the new Stafford, Ohio Community Connect Center. (Far right, State Director Tony Logan. Front row, fourth from the right, Acting Under Secretary for Rural Development Doug O’Brien). The center will provide free broadband for two years. USDA photos by Heather Hartley.

Along with state and regional USDA team members, Monroe County elected officials, the village mayor and many of Stafford’s citizens, O’Brien recently was on hand for a community cookout commemorating the grand opening of the center, located on a generously donated swatch of land right next to the post office.

“We all depend on one another here,” said Anita DeLong, who manages not only the community center, but the post office, as well. “When something needs done, we just do it. We want to thank the USDA and Crystal Broadband Networks. This has meant so much to our kids. And besides that, it’s going to give the grown-ups something to do in wintertime when the weather gets bad!”

In fact, “bad weather” is another facet of rural connectivity addressed by this particular grant. Crystal Broadband Networks has included technology that now allows the village to receive and communicate virtual, real-time severe weather warnings.

“With a modern Broadband Internet connection, small businesses in Stafford can now compete on equal footing with businesses in Chicago, New York or Hong Kong,” said Ohio Rural Development State Director Tony Logan. “This is an historic event for Stafford, and USDA is proud to have played a small part.”

Recent changes to program rules have simplified the application process. You can learn more here: http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/utp_commconnect.html

Students and residents of Stafford will have free access to broadband under the provisions of a USDA Community Connect grant. USDA photos by Heather Hartley.

Students and residents of Stafford will have free access to broadband under the provisions of a USDA Community Connect grant. USDA photos by Heather Hartley.

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