USDA makes funds available for improving rural broadband

MARTINSBURG — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to help build broadband infrastructure in rural areas — a move U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., are applauding.

According to a release from Capito, the USDA is offering up to $600 million in loans and grants. 

Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities are all eligible to apply to the USDA’s program for funding that would help connect rural areas with insufficient broadband service. 

“High-speed internet e-Connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope that today rural communities kick-off their rural broadband project planning,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a release from Capito’s office. “Under the leadership of President Trump, USDA has worked to understand the true needs of rural communities facing this challenge so we can be strong partners to create high-speed, reliable broadband e-Connectivity.” 

Under the program, the USDA will make approximately $200 million available for grants — applications will be due to the USDA by April 29 — as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations — applications due May 29. An additional $200 million for low-interest loans will be available, with applications for this due by June 28. 

In March, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which established a new broadband loan and grant pilot program, which is now called the Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program, or ReConnect Program. This act appropriated a budget of $600 million to be used on an expedited basis, according to information found on the USDA’s website. 

The goal of the program is to expand broadband to rural areas with low connectivity — defined as 10 megabits per second downstream and 1 megabit upstream. The first round of applicants will have three funding categories to choose from: 100 percent loan, 50 percent loan/50 percent grant or 100 percent grant, according to the USDA. 

In order to be eligible for the 100 percent loan or 50 percent loan/50 percent grant, the proposed funded service area in an application must be rural — fewer than 20,000 residents — and where 90 percent of the households do not have sufficient broadband access. To be eligible for a 100 percent grant, the proposed funded service area must be a rural area where 100 percent of the households do not have sufficient broadband access. 

All proposed networks must be capable of providing service to every premise in the proposed funded service area at a speed of a minimum of 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 megabits upstream. 

For more information on the program, visit reconnect.uda.gov

"Connectivity is essential for individuals, families, students, businesses, and communities to succeed,” Capito said in a release on Thursday. “Without access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet, rural communities and rural states like West Virginia are being left behind when it comes to education, health care, job creation and retention, and overall economic potential. Programs like this one and other efforts I’ve been working to promote through my Capito Connect initiative can help us close the digital divide, improve the lives of those living in our rural communities, and grow and diversify our economy.” 

According to the release, as a leader of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Capito helped secure funds in the fiscal year 2018 budget for the broadband pilot program. 

Manchin said he hopes the program will help fix broadband access issues in West Virginia. 

“West Virginia faces unique challenges when it comes to providing broadband access, and the first step to fixing that is making sure rural states like West Virginia are priority,” Manchin said in a press release Thursday. “Strong broadband access for the Mountain State will be a game-changer to not only our economy, but also our public safety, education, and connectivity to our friends and family. I am glad the USDA is launching this program that will help prioritize broadband deployment for rural states like West Virginia.” 

Funding for the e-Connectivity Pilot Program comes from the fiscal year 2018 omnibus appropriations bill, which Manchin voted to approve in March. The same bill also included various broadband mapping provisions that Manchin authored to help target federal support to the places that need it most, according to the release. This includes the Rural Wireless Access Act, which requires the Federal Communications Commission to standardize its collection of wireless coverage data and ensure it is collected in a consistent manner, and explicit requirements that the FCC report on the actions they will take to improve the collection of mobile broadband coverage data to address the limitations of the current data, the release said.

By:  Staff
Source: The Martinsburg Journal