USDA dishes out $1.2B for broadband in third round of ReConnect funding

The U.S. Department of Agriculture laid out plans to divvy up $1.15 billion in support for rural broadband in the third round of funding from its ReConnect Program, adding to the more than $1.5 billion it has doled out since the program’s inception in 2018.

As in previous funding rounds, the agency plans to provide loans, grants and combination loan/grant awards. A total of $200 million will be available for 100% loans, with a maximum individual award amount of $50 million. It will also offer up to $250 million in combo awards, with a maximum amount of $25 million for the loan and $25 million for the grant. An additional $350 million will be allocated for 100% grants, with a maximum award amount of $25 million and a 25% match required.

This time around, it will also offer dedicated 100% grants for tribal governments and socially vulnerable communities. Up to $350 million has been allocated to this category, with a maximum award amount of $35 million and no match required.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement the ReConnect funds, as well as additional money the agency allocated for telemedicine and distance learning, “will go a long way toward ensuring that people who live or work in rural areas are able to tap into the benefits of broadband, including access to specialized health care, educational opportunities and the global marketplace.”

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ReConnect applications will be accepted starting November 24. All projects must serve areas which lack speeds of at least 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps and applicants must pledge to provide symmetrical 100 Mbps service in order to be eligible for funding.

The USDA said it plans to prioritize proposals focused on deploying broadband in low-density areas which currently lack access to speeds of at least 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. It will also weigh a range of other factors, including the economic needs of the community being served, the extent to which the provider plans to offer affordable service plans and the project’s commitment to “strong labor standards”.

National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jim Matheson hailed the funding announcement, noting in a statement “significant changes to this new round of the ReConnect program will allow electric cooperatives and other broadband providers to offer service to many more unserved and underserved rural communities.”

In two previous funding rounds, the USDA allocated more than $1.5 billion, including $656 million in fiscal year 2019 and $853.9 million in fiscal year 2020.