Rural businesses and companies who have applied for funding to build out high-speed internet through USDA’s ReConnect pilot program should know by December if they will be receiving funding.

Chad Rupe, administrator for the Rural Utilities Service, told the Senate Agriculture Committee Thursday the department has received 146 funding applications from 41 states.

The ReConnect program will provide $200 million for grants, $200 million in grants/loans, and $200 million in low-interest loans.

Currently, USDA is in the process of reviewing applications and making decisions on awards in all three of those categories. “We have started the award announcements for those, and we plan to have that fully completed by December for the first round of funding,” Rupe said. 

He noted as of today, the department has offered $289 million of the $600 million in ReConnect funds for 27 projects in 20 states.

Some $44 million in grants and loans have been distributed to five projects in Tennessee, South Carolina, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Virginia.

“We are actively engaging in making our decisions and finding the right award opportunities in the right locations, and it changes on a daily basis,” Rupe said.

An applicant to the program told the committee he was “enthusiastic” about the new program but said it’s challenging to know which areas are served with broadband and which are not.

“If someone can challenge that, and I have to meet a (qualification) of providing 100% correct data, that is hard to do,” Keith Hayward, general manager for the North East Mississippi Electric Power Association told the committee.

His association applied for the grant only-portion of the program. Hayward said his association would be disqualified if there were one challenge against the data he provided.

“We were spending thousands of dollars to apply for this grant,” he said after telling the committee he had to set up phone banks to call some 1,200 members across the service area he was applying for, to make sure his information was accurate.

Rupe agreed that there is no single source that has the absolute correct data to be able to recognize who currently has service available 24/7 but said USDA and the Federal Communications Commission are working hard to deploy federal dollars in the areas that need them.

The fiscal 2019 spending agreement enacted in February, after a prolonged impasse on border security, earmarked $550 million in additional funds for rural broadband. Rupe said the department hopes to make those funds available early next year.

A second panel focused on what could be done to advance telemedicine, finding available resources to improve farmer mental health, and understanding the impacts of energy programs in the farm bill. 

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