USDA dishes out $759 million to boost rural broadband in 24 states

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) named its latest winners in the third round of funding for the Broadband ReConnect Program, doling out $759 million to rural broadband projects across 24 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and Palau.

This marks the biggest pot of money distributed for ReConnect round three. The agency awarded $401 million to 11 states in July, followed by $502 million across 20 states in September. All told, USDA has allocated $1.6 billion towards the third round of ReConnect funding.

The $759 million covers a total of 49 broadband infrastructure projects. Grant awards make up $667.6 million of that amount, while $91.5 million is allocated towards loans.

Palau National Communications Corporation obtained the highest grant award ($35 million), followed by Western New Mexico Telephone Company ($34.9 million). Palau’s grant will be used to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network across six islands and three educational facilities. And Western New Mexico Telephone Company will put the money toward a FTTP network covering 678 homes and 10 businesses.

Other notable grant recipients include Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Telephone Company ($34.5 million), Alaska’s Dena’ Nena’ Henash tribal nonprofit ($30.3 million) and Illinois’ Shelby Electric Cooperative ($23.7 million), which will deploy FTTP to 4,057 households, 511 farms and 61 businesses.

Loan-wise, Georgia’s Public Service Telephone Company secured the highest amount ($36.5 million), which will help connect over 20,000 homes to FTTP.

In a press call with journalists, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said ReConnect funds can be used for several purposes. For instance, providers can construct and improve the facilities required to provide fixed broadband service.

“They can acquire an existing system that doesn’t currently provide sufficient access to high-speed internet and can pay for reasonable pre-application expenses,” he added.

Of the $759 million announced today, $468 million is made available through the $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), said Vilsack.

Though some operators have scored sizeable ReConnect awards, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheaper for them to deploy fiber. The Alaska Telephone Company, which won $33 million in the previous batch of ReConnect awards, expects to pay a staggering cost of $204,000 per passing.

ReConnect round four applications are well underway, as the deadline is next week on November 2. Vilsack added USDA will open applications for a fifth round sometime in 2023, with funds consisting of “appropriated resources in our regular budget process.”