USDA announces $667 million ReConnect Program for rural internet access

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the latest in several nationwide efforts to bring stronger internet access to rural communities and address the continued digital divide, with the government agency launching $667 million in funding through its ReConnect Program.

The infrastructure program, comprised of grants, loans, and a combination of the two, will serve 22 states and the Marshall Islands, focusing on areas that lack access to internet speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20Mbps upload — the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) speed minimums are 25Mbps and 3Mbps, respectively. 

As reported by the Verge, the Scott County Telephone Cooperative in Virginia will receive one of the largest grants at $25 million, with a goal of connecting 17,000 people, 1,018 businesses, 37 farms, and 49 educational facilities. A nearly $25 million grant to Star Telephone Membership Corporation will serve Bladen, Columbus, and Sampson counties in North Carolina; in Oregon, Pioneer Telephone Cooperative also will receive nearly $25 million to benefit more than 2,200 people, 50 business, 205 farms, and one educational facility.

The program provides specific 100-percent-funded grant opportunities for Alaska Native corporations, tribal governments, colonias, regions known as “persistent poverty areas,” and socially vulnerable communities.

The USDA’s funding source is the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which originally allocated $65 billion to expanding affordable, high-speed broadband access to all Americans. According to the White House guidebook on the law: “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help ensure that every American has access to reliable high-speed internet through a historic investment in broadband infrastructure deployment. The legislation will also help lower prices for internet service and help close the digital divide, so that more Americans can make full use of internet access.”

The deal provides funding streams for President Joe Biden’s Internet For All initiative, a nationwide effort to reach universal internet connectivity by 2030. “According to the latest OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] data,” the White House guidebook reads, “among 35 countries studied, the United States has the second highest broadband costs.”

In June, the Biden-Harris administration announced that $42 billion of the infrastructure deal would be divided among states for high-speed broadband projects, known as the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. The projects and allocated funding were guided by a newly-released FCC coverage map used to identify low-access areas.

That same month, the administration unveiled a $1 billion allocation to its Middle Mile program. The funding seeks to expand internet access to underserved areas across 35 states and Puerto Rico using what’s known as the “middle miles” of broadband cable networks, or miles of historically missing connections that cut off many regions from market-based, high-speed internet.

The Internet For All initiative also provides funding and resources to address digital equity, including the 2021 Digital Equity Act — a $2.75 billion allocation to fund three grant opportunities for projects that promote digital equity and inclusion.

“The reality is, we have faced some challenging times in rural places, and this is a president who believes strongly in ensuring that investments are made in all parts of the country from the most-populated urban centers to the most remote rural places,” said USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press call on Friday, as reported by the Verge.

In addition to large-scale infrastructure projects to close the digital divide across the U.S., the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided support to individuals and households struggling to pay for consistent internet access. The FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, initiated by the 2021 deal, received a $14.2 billion expansion to continue providing subsidized internet access to low-income homes and tribal communities.

Learn more about the ReConnect Program on the USDA website.

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