A selection of 49 high-speed internet projects from 24 states will receive approximately $759 million in funding from the United State Department of Agriculture
The USDA announced its third round of funding for its Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Program, a grants and loan program created to expand and facilitate the construction and improvement of broadband internet services in rural areas.
“USDA partners with small towns, local utilities and cooperatives, and private companies to increase access to high-speed internet so people in rural America have the opportunity to build brighter futures,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement. “Under the leadership of President Biden and Vice President Harris, USDA is committed to making sure that people, no matter where they live, have access to high-speed internet. That’s how you grow the economy – not just in rural communities, but across the nation.”
The multi-million dollar infusion of funding is roughly half of the $1.6 billion the USDA earmarked for this round of funding.
The USDA distributed over $656 million during the first round to 33 states and territories in 2019. In 2020, the second round of funding saw the distribution of more than $850 million across 37 states.
“To date, USDA has announced $857,855,688 for projects in the third round of funding, for a total of $2,364,216,498 invested through the ReConnect Program,” according to the department.
As part of the latest round of funding, Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming will all receive a portion of the funding. The USDA will also distribute funding for high-speed internet to Puerto Rico, Guam and Palau as well as the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, and the utility authorities for the Navajo Nation and the Tohono O’odham Nation.
To qualify, states must file an application demonstrating that the funding will be used to service areas that do not have access to internet services that operate at download speeds of less than 100 megabits per second (Mbps) or upload speeds of 20 Mbps. States must agree to build a facility that will provide high-speed internet throughout the entire proposed service area.
Vilsack and White House senior advisor Mitch Landrieu announced the grants in North Carolina, where the AccessOn Networks was selected to receive $17.5 million. The project will provide high-speed internet to 100 businesses, 76 farms and 22 educational facilities in Halifax and Warren counties.
The funding was made available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law which earmarked $65 billion for improving access to high-speed internet across the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the already known challenges facing rural areas that lack reliable and fast internet connections. Rural regions of the country including Appalachia are often regarded as unserviceable by telecommunication companies because the natural infrastructure challenge and widely dispersed population are obstacles to generating a profit, per Fox News.
As social distancing requirements and stay-at-home orders moved schools and work to a virtual setting, the need for better internet during 2020 became even more apparent.
The pandemic left a number of cooperatives in rural areas to develop solutions for their communities, including laying fiber optic cables and building their own networks.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper declared April 16 to April 21, 2021 “Rural Broadband Week” to call attention to the urgency of the issue and to call for investments in digital infrastructure.
“High-speed internet is essential infrastructure for everyone, from students and teachers to small business owners, workers, doctors and farmers and we need to improve access for rural communities across our state,” said Cooper. “In the wake of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to empower every household in North Carolina to use fast internet service to link to new skills, global markets, education and healthcare.”