USDA to spend $500 million extending high-speed internet to rural America

The US Department of Agriculture will provide more than $500 million in loans and grants to telecom providers to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas in 20 states, Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday.

The Department will issue $360 million in grants and $141 million in loans through its ReConnect program to support sparsely populated communities including in Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon and Tennessee.

Iowa will partner with Minnesota in a $11.4 million project. Spring Grove Communications receives a split between grant and loan funding to establish a fiber-to-the-premises network. This network will connect 983 people, 42 businesses and 122 farms in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in Iowa and Houston County in Minnesota to high-speed Internet, according to the USDA.

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The funding, the third round from the department’s ReConnect program, combined with additional funds from last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, would make a big difference in connecting rural people and businesses, said Wilsack.

“We now have, for the first time, a real opportunity to cover literally all of America,” Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, told reporters at a press briefing Wednesday. “With the third round of the ReConnect program and the resources available under the Infrastructure Act, I believe we have come a long way in improving and increasing the level of service.”

According to a department press release, the department will also allocate more funding to rural Internet programs through the bipartisan Infrastructure Act “in the coming months.” Other ReConnect awards would also be announced in the coming weeks, the department said.

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The current flow of funding is aimed at improving existing infrastructure, Vilsack told reporters on Wednesday.

“The beauty of this process is that the USDA has a very specific role to play,” he said. “This goal is to significantly increase the capacity of existing plants.”

The two largest allocations were grants to communities in Alaska.

Alaska Telephone Company awarded $33 million to build fiber optic network connecting 211 people and five businesses in Haines County, Hoonah-Angoon coverage area and Scagway Township.

The USDA will provide Arctic Slope Telephone with $31 million for a similar network to connect 476 people, 15 businesses and a public school in the North Slope County.

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Other projects are:

  • A $13.8 million grant for western Colorado.
  • A $6.3 million grant for counties on either side of the Kansas-Nebraska border.
  • A $25 million grant for the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa in Michigan. The project is designed to serve the reservation and non-reservation of Sault Ste. Marie communities and nearby “communities at risk”
  • $25 million split between a grant and a loan for a project in Freeborn County, Minnesota.
  • A $12.4 million loan to Barton County, Missouri.
  • A $24.7 million grant for two counties in southern North Carolina.
  • A $20.5 million grant loan for eastern Oregon.

The full list can be found here.

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