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USDA announces more funding to expand broadband to rural areas

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USDA announces more funding to expand broadband to rural areas

Aug 04, 2022 | 2:59 pm ET
By Kate Kealey
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USDA announces more funding to expand broadband to rural areas
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The darkened areas show the areas of the state that have lacked 25 Mbps internet service. (Graphic courtesy of State of Iowa)

The U.S Department of Agriculture is now accepting applications for the fourth round of a grant and loan program to bring high-speed internet to rural America.

USDA’s Rural Development Secretary Xochitl Torres Small said for too long, rural communities have been left out of the digital economy even though they play a fundamental role in the economy as a whole.

“All of us are working to pull our weight to make sure that everyone in America, no matter where they live, can get this high-speed internet,” Torres Small said on a press call Thursday. “We know it’s crucial for all of us because rural people provide the everyday essentials that our country depends on.”

Awards include up to $150 million in loans, up to $300 million in loan/grant combinations and $700 million in grants. Applications for round four of the ReConnect Program will be accepted from Sept. 6 through Nov. 2. State, local and territory governments, corporations, cooperative organizations and Native American tribes are all eligible to apply. 

Torres Small said U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is interested in applicants that make sure no one is left out of the recovery from COVID-19, particularly disadvantaged communities, and that rural residents have equitable access to the rural development programming. 

“Without rural America, all of us wouldn’t have access to the everyday essentials that sometimes we take for granted like food, fiber and fuel,” Torres Small said. “That’s why President Biden, Vice President Harris and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack are all committed to ensuring that all rural Americans have access to the services and the infrastructure they need to thrive.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the first wave of awardees for round three. Investments in the third round equal $401 million for 31,000 rural residents and businesses across 11 states. Iowa has already received $50 million from rounds one and two and currently awaits the announcement of awards from round three. 

All awardees from the fourth round are required to apply to take part in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Affordable Connectivity Program. This will provide a discount of up to $30 a month for Wi-Fi services for low-income families. Tribal lands can qualify for up to a $75 discount on high-speed internet access.

The awardees from round three will be announced as funds are approved. The USDA made several updates to the program for the fourth round to increase the availability of funding in rural areas that lack access to affordable high-speed internet.

  • Applications in areas where 50% of homes are without adequate access to high-speed internet can now qualify. 
  • An additional funding category for projects where 90% of homes lack sufficient high-speed internet. Matching funds will not be required under this category.
  • Matching fund requirements will be waived for Alaska native corporations, tribal government, projects serving colonias (substandard housing communities often along the U.S./Mexico border) and projects that serve counties in poverty as well as socially vulnerable communities.