USDA Rural Development has announced the fourth round of its ReConnect program, which will offer more than $1 billion to expand broadband in rural America and begin taking applications in September.
The new round will award up to $150 million dollars in loans, twice that for loan-grant combinations and another $700 million for grants.
Calling this the “Summer of High-Speed Internet,” Rural Development Undersecretary Xochitl Torres Small said the Round 4 announcement comes on the heels of the program making public the first batch of its Round 3 recipients last week. More awards will be announced throughout the month.
“USDA’s ReConnect program is helping to bridge this digital divide that we see between those who have high-speed internet and those who don’t right now,” Torres Small said in a call with reporters Thursday.
Round 4 makes some changes to increase the availability of funding to areas with the greatest need, Laurel Leverrier, an assistant administrator at USDA Rural Utility Service, said on the same call.
“We’ve added a funding category for projects where 90% of the households lack sufficient access to high-speed internet,” she said. “These applicants that are submitted under this category will not be required to provide a matching fund.”
Matching funds are also waived for Alaska Native corporations and tribal governments, and projects proposing to serve persistent poverty counties or socially vulnerable communities.
In an interview with Agri-Pulse Newsmakers last week, Torres Small said interest in the ReConnect program is strong.
“Folks are interested, they’re engaged, and we’re ready to start investing in rural America,” she said.
Because ReConnect is already up and running, she said the administration has been able to add funding and get the money to unserved and underserved areas more quickly.
In Round 4, all projects must be part of the Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers low-income consumers a $30 discount on what they pay for internet service. That discount is $75 for residents of tribal lands.
Torres Small said on a recent trip to Virginia she saw the difference the program is making.
“A farmer came up and thanked me for increasing the speed in ReConnect 3 round because it is crucial to provide that precision ag to the field,” she said.
ReConnect projects must provide internet speeds of 100 Mbps for both download and upload, which Torres Small said is necessary to ensure rural residents can fully engage in everything the internet offers.
The new application round will be open from Sept. 6 to Nov. 2
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