The Department of Agriculture is making available $1.15 billion through USDA’s ReConnect program to provide rural areas with high-speed internet. The department will start taking applications for grants and loans Nov. 24. 

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is scheduled to visit Hammond Henry Hospital in Geneseo, Illinois, Friday afternoon. The hospital was renovated through a USDA loan.

“Rural people, businesses and communities must have affordable, reliable, high-speed internet so they can fully participate in modern society and the modern economy,” Vilsack said in a statement.

To qualify for funding, applicants must commit to providing download and upload speeds of 100 megabits per second to all locations in its suggested service area, according to USDA. Projects that currently serve areas with 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload speeds or less will be given priority.

Other considerations will involve the community’s economic needs, affordability of service offered, labor standards, and if tribal lands are served.

About $200 million will be offered for loans with another $250 million earmarked for loan/grant combinations. There's also a $350 million fund that will be distributed with a 25% matching requirement and another $350 million in grants with “no matching requirement for projects in tribal and socially vulnerable communities,” USDA noted.

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Nearly 105 rural distance learning and telemedicine projects across 37 states and Puerto Rico will also get a total of $50 million through the department’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine program, which helps rural areas gain better access to education, training, and health care resources.

The funding follows a separate $554 million announcement from the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday. FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will invest in projects in 19 states, including 11 projects that will provide gigabit service with 1,000 Mbps download speeds. 

USDA’s ReConnect program launched in December 2018 after being established through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018. According to USDA to date, the ReConnect program has invested $1.5 billion through the first and second rounds of funding.

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