USDA dishes out another $502M for ReConnect Round 3

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continued its efforts to boost rural broadband, announcing today the second group of winners of the Broadband ReConnect Program’s third funding round – distributing $502 million across 20 states.

Alaska scored big with funding for Alaska Telephone Company ($33.02 million) and Arctic Slope Telephone ($31 million). These companies will deploy fiber-to-the-premises networks connecting a combined 687 households, 20 businesses as well as a public school in North Slope Borough, Alaska.

Alabama’s Pine Belt Telephone Company received a sizeable grant of $24.9 million (and a loan of equal amount) to roll out a fiber network connecting nearly 16,000 homes and 608 businesses, as well as to 407 farms and 52 schools.

Other notable awards include $25 million for Michigan’s Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa, which will deliver fiber to the state’s Chippewa and Mackinac counties. The Tribe is requiring its provider to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program.

Additionally, the USDA is doling out a $12.4 million loan to Missouri’s Net Vision Communications and a loan worth $8.1 million (plus a grant worth the same amount) to Oklahoma’s Southern Plains Cable. Net Vision Communications aims to bring high speed internet to socially vulnerable communities in Missouri’s Barton County, while Southern Plains Cable’s project will serve tribal and socially vulnerable communities in Oklahoma’s Cotton County.

All told, the USDA dished out 32 awards for this wave of ReConnect funding.

“This is an exciting opportunity for us to continue to expand what is an absolutely essential technology for rural America,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press call prior to the announcement.

The USDA in July unveiled the first recipients of ReConnect round three awards – handing out $401 million across 11 states.

Vilsack noted the recent ReConnect funding is indicative of the Biden administration’s goal to “increase the capacity and capability of the fiber systems that are being upgraded" such that the "download and upload speeds are significantly greater, and there’s capacity to increase them even more."

Also speaking on the call was Greg Puckett, chair of the National Association of Counties’ Rural Action Caucus. He emphasized the impact broadband development can have on rural communities.

“Something most people may not understand is 70% of the nation’s counties are rural,” he said. “And as counties, we play a major role in broadband development efforts for over 60 million residents that call rural America home.”

Puckett, who is also a commissioner for West Virginia’s Mercer County, added, “We saw in communities like mine a lack of hope and resiliency as a result of the pandemic. As negative as that was…I think it really spurred us on, where we could move these issues and broadband connectivity forward.”

More ReConnect funding is to come, as the USDA opened applications for round four on September 6. Companies can submit their applications through November 2, 2022.

Money for the fourth round, which the agency says will amount to a total of $1.15 billion, comes from $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The USDA has called upon the federal government to double down on its definition of rural broadband. At a congressional hearing last week, USDA Under Secretary Xochitl Torres Small noted what’s considered “rural” varies across the country, impacting who can be eligible for broadband funding.