The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continued its efforts to boost rural broadband, announcing today the second group of winners of the Broadband ReConnect Program’s third funding round – distributing $502 million across 20 states.
Alaska reaped significant benefits from support for Alaska Telephone Company ($33.02 million) and Arctic Slope Telephone ($31 million). These companies will build fiber-to-the-premises networks in North Slope Borough, Alaska, linking 687 families, 20 businesses, and a public school.
Pine Belt Telephone Company in Alabama won a $24.9 million grant (along with an equal loan) to build a fibre network connecting over 16,000 residences and 608 companies, as well as 407 farms and 52 schools.
Other major grants include $25 million for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa in Michigan, which would deliver fibre to Chippewa and Mackinac counties. The Tribe is mandating its service provider to participate in the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program.
Furthermore, the USDA is doling out a $12.4 million loan to Missouri’s Net Vision Communications and a loan worth $8.1 million (plus a grant worth the same amount) to Oklahoma’s Southern Plains Cable. Net Vision Communications aims to bring high-speed internet to socially vulnerable communities in Missouri’s Barton County, while Southern Plains Cable’s project will serve tribal and socially vulnerable communities in Oklahoma’s Cotton County.
The USDA awarded 32 grants for this round of ReConnect financing.
“This is an exciting opportunity for us to continue to grow what is an incredibly critical technology for rural America,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said ahead of the announcement on a press call.
The USDA announced the first recipients of ReConnect round three contracts in July, awarding $401 million to 11 states.
The recent ReConnect funding, according to Vilsack, is indicative of the Biden administration’s goal to “increase the capacity and capability of the fibre systems that are being upgraded” so that “download and upload speeds are significantly greater, and there is the capacity to increase them even more.”
Also speaking on the call was Greg Puckett, chair of the National Association of Counties’ Rural Action Caucus. He emphasized the impact broadband development can have on rural communities.
“Something most people may not understand is 70% of the nation’s counties are rural,” he said. “And as counties, we play a major role in broadband development efforts for over 60 million residents that call rural America home.” Puckett, who is also a commissioner for West Virginia’s Mercer County, added, “We saw in communities like mine a lack of hope and resiliency as a result of the pandemic. As negative as that was…I think it really spurred us on, where we could move these issues and broadband connectivity forward.”
More ReConnect cash is on the way, as the USDA opened round four submissions on September 6. Companies have until November 2, 2022, to submit their applications.
The $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides funding for the fourth phase, which the government estimates will total $1.15 billion.
The USDA has urged the federal government to expand its definition of rural broadband. During a congressional hearing last week, USDA Under Secretary Xochitl Torres Small stated that what constitutes “rural” differs across the country, affecting who is eligible for internet subsidies.