A fresh round of Agriculture Department funding is set to invest $401 million to expand internet connectivity to unserved or underserved people in rural parts of the country across 11 states.

The bulk of the investments, made through USDA’s ReConnect program, are expected to provide high-speed internet access for some 31,000 people and businesses in rural America; there’s also a $44.9 million award being funded through USDA’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program.

The $401 million is the first investment from the third round of ReConnect funding; Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters this week the rest of the funding will be “over the course of this summer as we roll out a number of projects throughout the United States.”

But the first round of funding, said Vilsack and Farah Ahmad, USDA’s Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development, was allocated toward projects that served low-density, rural areas or areas lacking speeds of 25 megabits per second download and three Mbps upload.

“One of the principal focuses of this resource is to making sure that we are dealing with areas of the country that are underserved or unserved, so there had to be establishment or proof, if you will, that there was not service being provided in order to be able to qualify,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said some of the money was also set aside for historically underserved populations, with a portion of the funds set aside for tribes “with the understanding that they may not have to actually provide the match that’s necessary under normal resources.”

To qualify for the program, projects must provide 100/20 Mbps internet service and commit to building out 100/100 service.

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“The key here for us is making sure the internet that is being made available is in fact usable,” Vilsack said. “Part of the problem in the past has been people can say they have internet access, but it’s incredibly slow.”

The first announcement under round three includes predominantly western states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas.

The funding allocated through the announcement does not include any dollars from the 2021 infrastructure bill, which included a $65 billion investment in rural broadband.

Vilsack said USDA plans to announce this fall the availability of ReConnect’s fourth round of funding, “which will begin the process of utilizing the resources under the bipartisan infrastructure law.” That money, he said, could be awarded in early 2023.

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