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USDA rolls out $600m in broadband funding

TAGS: Policy
stevanovicigor/iStock/Thinkstock Trump's rural broadband goal won't be easy, it will be costly
Funding is part of money provided in omnibus spending package from earlier this year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities may apply for funding through USDA’s new ReConnect Program to connect rural areas that currently have insufficient broadband service. Answering the Administration’s call to action for rural prosperity, Congress appropriated funds in the fiscal 2018 budget for this broadband pilot program. USDA Rural Development is the primary agency delivering the program, with assistance from other federal partners.

“High-speed internet e-connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope that today, rural communities kick off their rural broadband project planning,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. “Under the leadership of President [Donald] Trump, USDA has worked to understand the true needs of rural communities facing this challenge so we can be strong partners to create high-speed, reliable, broadband e-connectivity.”

USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants (applications are due to USDA by April 29, 2019) as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations (applications are due May 29, 2019) and $200 million for low-interest loans (applications are due by June 28, 2019). For additional information, see page 64315 of the Dec. 14 Federal Register (255 kb pdf).

Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.

Approved projects must create access speeds of at least 25 mbps upload and 3 mbps download. Priority will be awarded for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to rural homes, businesses and farms. USDA seeks to stretch these funds as far as possible by leveraging existing networks and systems without overbuilding existing services greater than 10/1 mbps.

Evaluation criteria include connecting agricultural production and marketing, e-commerce, health care and education facilities. Previous research by USDA has demonstrated that high-capacity broadband is critical to all aspects of rural prosperity, including the ability to grow and attract businesses, retain and develop talent and maintain rural quality of life.

To help customers with the application process, USDA is holding a series of online webinars and regional in-person workshops. The full list of upcoming public webinars and workshops can be found at the ReConnect Program’s resource portal at reconnect.usda.gov.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) welcomed the program, which was made possible through the $600 million investment Congress allocated in the spending bill.

““I’m pleased the USDA is finally moving forward on the $600 million high-speed internet investment Congress provided in the 2018 omnibus. Expanding high-speed internet access is vital to the growth and success of our small towns and rural communities in Michigan and across the country. I look forward to continuing to work with USDA to make these vital resources available to rural families and businesses,” she said.

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