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Rural broadband projects get $500 million in USDA funding

The Biden administration announced a half a billion dollars in grants and loans for high-speed internet projects in rural areas from Alaska to Alabama on Thursday, with more awards expected soon. The 2021 infrastructure bill set aside billions of dollars for broadband access, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “We now have, genuinely, an opportunity to cover all of rural America.”

More than 30 million Americans live in rural and urban areas without internet connections at “minimally acceptable speeds,” said the White House last fall. Slow connections are a particular problem in rural areas, it said. The infrastructure law allocated $65 billion to improve internet services for rural areas, low-income families, and tribal communities.

Vilsack said that 32 projects in 20 states would receive $502 million in funding through the USDA’s ReConnect Program. With those awards, $858 million has been committed of the $1.15 billion offered in the third round of applications. The deadline for applications for a similar amount of funding in Round 4 is Nov. 2.

Pine Belt Telephone Co., serving west-central Alabama, received the largest award on Thursday, $49.7 million. The award, split evenly between loans and grants, will be used to deploy a fiber-to-premises network serving 16,000 people, 608 businesses, 52 educational facilities, and 407 farms, said the USDA. “This project will serve socially vulnerable communities in Choctaw, Dallas, and Clarke counties.”

The largest grants, totaling $63 million, went to two projects in Alaska, one near Skagway on the Alaskan Panhandle and the other on the North Slope, the northernmost part of the United States, on the Arctic Ocean. Both would serve lightly populated regions, with a combined 687 people, 19 businesses, and one high school affected. Vilsack said the North Slope project illustrates the commitment to high-quality internet nationwide.

“Broadband is imperative” in a nation that increasingly relies on digital connections, said Greg Puckett, who chairs the National Association of Counties’ Rural Action Caucus. Without it, he said, rural communities “face a real economic barrier.”

Early this year, in a Purdue University poll, 12% of large-scale farmers said they had no internet access and 16% said they had a poor-quality connection. “Just three out of ten respondents said they had ‘high-quality’ internet access, followed by 41% who chose ‘moderate-quality,’ ” wrote Purdue economists James Mintert and Michael Langemeier.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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