Farms and businesses suffering from insufficient internet connectivity and broadband service could get some help from a grant and loan program that USDA will launch in the new year with higher service requirements than the department originally proposed.
A Federal Register notice to be published in February will lay out the application details for telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities to start applying for funding under the ReConnect Program.
“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,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who released guidelines for the program Thursday.
Projects will be required to provide access speeds of at least 25 megabits per second upload and 3 Mbps download, a standard set by the new farm bill that Congress passed this week, and higher than the 10/1 requirement that was in the department's proposed rule released earlier this year.
The 25/3 standard matches the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband.
USDA Rural Development will offer up to $600 million in loans and grants to qualified applicants, making available approximately:
- $200 million for grants (applications due to USDA by April 29)
- $200 million for loan and grant combinations (applications due May 29)
- $200 million for low-interest loans (applications due by June 28)
Funded projects must serve communities less than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. USDA wants to stretch dollars as far as possible by using existing networks and systems and without competing with existing services that offer speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps.
Perdue said the 10/1 is a starting point. “We think that is minimal” but it’s like having a car. “If you don’t have a car, you need a used car to start with.”
Priority will be given for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to farms, rural homes, and businesses.
“We will give 20 additional points for any project that will have 100 mbps symmetrical,” USDA Rural Development Telecommunications Assistant Administrator Chad Parker said.
R.J. Karney, congressional relations director at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said they see this as “a net positive for farmers, ranchers, and agricultural producers looking to use precision ag equipment.”
AFBF and the Agricultural Broadband Coalition raised concerns that the proposed 10/1 standard was too low. Increasing the requirement to 25/3 standard was “a win for agriculture,” he said.
Congress established the pilot program’s funding when they passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 on March 23.
“Rural electric cooperatives have already been looking at doing broadband,” Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said. “We brought the lights on in the 1930s and we’re ready to bring broadband to rural America as well.”
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