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USDA Earmarks $1.15 Billion for Rural Broadband

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday that it will make $1.15 billion in federal loans and grants available to expand high-speed internet access in rural communities across the country through its ReConnect Program, part of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

“For too long, the ‘digital divide’ has left too many people living in rural communities behind: unable to compete in the global economy and unable to access the services and resources that all Americans need,” USDA Secretary Tom  Vilsack said in a press release. “As we build back better than we were before, the actions I am announcing today will go a long way toward ensuring that people who live or work in rural areas are able to tap into the benefits of broadband, including access to specialized health care, educational opportunities and the global marketplace. Rural people, businesses and communities must have affordable, reliable, high-speed internet so they can fully participate in modern society and the modern economy.”

To be eligible for ReConnect Program funding, applicants must serve an area without broadband service at speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) (download) and 20 Mbps (upload), and commit to building facilities capable of providing broadband service at speeds of 100 Mbps (download and upload) to every location in its proposed service area. 

In making funding decisions, USDA said it will prioritize projects that will serve low-density rural areas with locations lacking internet access services at speeds of at least 25 Mbps (download) and 3 Mbps (upload). In addition, the agency said it will also consider the economic needs of the community to be served; the extent to which a provider will offer affordable service options; a project’s commitment to strong labor standards; and whether a project is serving tribal lands or is submitted by a local government, Tribal Government, non-profit or cooperative.

The USDA will begin accepting applications for the ReConnect Program on Nov. 24. The program will make about $200 million in loans, up to $250 million in a combination of loans and grants available. In addition, applicants can apply for up to $350 million in grants with a 25% matching requirement and up to $350 million in  grants with no matching requirement for projects in tribal and socially vulnerable communities. 

Vilsack also introduced the agency’s $50 million investment in 105 rural distance learning and telemedicine projects in 37 states and Puerto Rico. The awards, funded through the USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine program, will help increase access to education, training, and healthcare resources in areas where they are otherwise limited or unavailable.  Some projects that have been awarded funding through the program include a $387,000 grant to OSF Healthcare System to 107,000 rural residents in central Illinois, and a $199,015 grant to UHS of Texoma, Inc., to provide a distance learning system to improve mental health services for 8,000 people in the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma.