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USDA to Spend $500 Million Extending High-Speed Internet to Rural America

By Jacob Fischler, Kansas Reflector

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Agriculture will send more than $500 million in loans and grants to telecommunications providers to bring high-speed internet to rural areas across 20 states, Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday.

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

The funding, the third round from the department’s ReConnect program, combined with additional money from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law enacted last year, would make a major difference in connecting rural populations and businesses, Vilsack said.

“We now have for the first time a genuine opportunity to literally cover all of America,” Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, told reporters on a Wednesday press call. “With the ReConnect program round three and the resources available under the infrastructure law, I think we’ve come a long way to improving and increasing the level of service.”

A $6.3 million grant will fund a project by JBN Telephone Co. to connect 700 people, 17 business and 225 farms across eight counties in Kansas and Nebraska to affordable, high-speed internet.

USDA rural development under secretary Xochitl Torres-Small announced the Kansas-Nebraska grant at a news conference Thursday in Holton, Kansas, at the JBN Telephone office.

“We know that high-speed internet is a modern day necessity,” Torres-Small said. “We know the ingenuity that exists in rural America. We know the opportunity in terms of kids learning in rural America is worth the investment of high-speed internet so that no matter where you live, you can compete on the World Wide Web and you can be connected.”

The department will also provide more funding to rural internet programs through the bipartisan infrastructure law “in the coming months,” according to a department news release. More ReConnect awards would also be announced in coming weeks, the department said.

The current funding stream was targeted to upgrade existing infrastructure, Vilsack told reporters Wednesday.

“The beauty of this process is USDA has a very specific role,” he said. “That goal is to essentially increase the capacity of existing facilities.”

The two largest allotments were both grants for Alaska communities.

The Alaska Telephone Company will receive $33 million to deploy a fiber network to connect 211 people and five business in Haines Borough, the Hoonah-Angoon Census Area and the Skagway Municipality.

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 Borough.

Other projects include:

  • A $13.8 million grant to serve western Colorado.
  • A $25 million grant for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa in Michigan. The project is meant to serve reservation and non-reservation Sault Ste. Marie communities, as well as nearby “vulnerable communities”
  • $25 million split between a grant and loan for a project in Freeborn County, Minnesota.
  • A $12.4 million loan for 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 is available here.

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