USDA allocates $667 million for rural internet projects

USDA allocates $667 million for rural internet projects

Bridging the Digital Divide: USDA Launches $667 Million Funding Program

Internet Connectivity

Introduction

In a move to address the ongoing digital divide and enhance internet access in rural areas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced the launch of its ReConnect Program. This program will invest $667 million in grants, loans, and a combination of both, focusing on areas lacking internet speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20Mbps upload. The initiative aims to bridge the gap between urban and rural communities, ensuring equal opportunities for all Americans to thrive in the digital age.

Advancing Connectivity for Rural Communities

The ReConnect Program will cover 22 states and the Marshall Islands, prioritizing regions in need of improved internet speeds. One of the largest grants, amounting to $25 million, has been awarded to the Scott County Telephone Cooperative in Virginia. This funding will allow them to connect 17,000 individuals, 1,018 businesses, 37 farms, and 49 educational facilities. Similarly, Star Telephone Membership Corporation in North Carolina will receive a grant of nearly $25 million, benefiting Bladen, Columbus, and Sampson counties. Pioneer Telephone Cooperative in Oregon will also be awarded approximately $25 million, extending internet access to over 2,200 people, 50 businesses, 205 farms, and one educational facility.

Fostering Equitable Access

The ReConnect Program recognizes the importance of equal access to internet connectivity and includes specific grant opportunities aimed at enhancing connectivity for different underserved communities. Alaska Native corporations, tribal governments, colonias, regions identified as “persistent poverty areas,” and socially vulnerable communities can apply for 100% funded grants. By prioritizing these communities, the program aims to uplift marginalized populations and empower them through digital inclusion.

Funding Sources and National Efforts

The funding for the ReConnect Program comes from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which originally set aside $65 billion to expand affordable and high-speed broadband access nationwide. Within this legislation, President Joe Biden’s Internet For All initiative plays a crucial role in achieving universal internet connectivity by 2030. The United States, despite being one of the world’s leading economies, has been facing challenges in terms of broadband availability and affordability. According to the latest data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States has the second-highest broadband costs among 35 countries studied.

Coordinated Efforts: BEAD Program and Middle Mile Initiative

To support the Internet For All initiative, the Biden-Harris administration, in collaboration with the FCC, has launched other initiatives as well. The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which received $42 billion in funding, focuses on providing high-speed broadband projects across different states. Utilizing a newly-released FCC coverage map, the program identifies areas with low access and allocates funding accordingly.

Additionally, the Middle Mile program, allocated $1 billion, seeks to expand internet access to underserved regions across 35 states and Puerto Rico. By targeting the “middle miles” of broadband cable networks, these initiatives aim to bridge the gaps in connectivity and enable these areas to benefit from market-based, high-speed internet services.

Promoting Digital Equity

Recognizing that access to the internet alone is not sufficient, the Internet For All initiative also allocates resources and funding to address digital equity. The 2021 Digital Equity Act, with a budget of $2.75 billion, provides three grant opportunities to projects that promote digital equity and inclusion. Through these grants, efforts will be made to ensure that individuals and communities, regardless of their economic or social status, have fair and equitable access to the digital resources needed for personal and professional growth.

Conclusion

The launch of the ReConnect Program by the USDA and the investments made through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law mark a significant milestone in bridging the digital divide in the United States. Through these initiatives, it is hoped that all Americans, including those in rural and underserved areas, will gain access to reliable, affordable, and high-speed internet connectivity. With the deployment of robust infrastructure and inclusive policies, the nation can fully leverage the benefits of an interconnected world, stimulate economic growth, and foster digital innovation. Learn more about the ReConnect Program on the USDA website.