More money is being awarded through the Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program, offering loans or grants to 32 projects across 20 states to strengthen the country’s rural broadband access.

Thursday’s $502 million investment brings the total announced funding for ReConnect’s third round to $858 million; about $292 million is left to be distributed from the round. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters that remaining funding could be distributed soon, and additional announcements could include money called for in the 2021 infrastructure law.

“We’re in the process of trying to figure out precisely where there are gaps where no real broadband coverage exists,” Vilsack said, noting investments in the infrastructure bill to bring service to areas that currently lack it. But for the ReConnect program, he said “we’re focusing our resources on upgrading facilities so they are providing the kind of capacity that’s necessary to do the distance learning, the telemedicine, the expansion of business opportunities, and precision agriculture.”  

Infrastructure bill funding also includes resources allocated to the Department of Commerce and the Federal Communications Commission. Coordination between those entities and USDA was highlighted at a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing, with some on the panel expressing frustration that funds were appropriated to areas other than USDA programs.

For his part, Vilsack said the different government officials work well together to deliver the improved broadband service sought by Congress.

“Perhaps we need to do a better job of communicating the fact that we are communicating with each other,” Vilsack said.

ReConnect projects must commit to building internet networks with 100-megabit-per-second upload and download speeds.

As USDA works to finalize the investments in the third round of the program, applications are already open for the fourth round of funding. Applicants have until Nov. 2 to demonstrate their interest in more than $1 billion set to be distributed in that round: up to $150 million for loans, twice that for loan-grant combinations and $700 million for grants.

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