(Washington, DC) — US Department of Agriculture officials have announced an application window for the latest round of funding to address broadband and high-speed internet needs across the country.
At a press call Thursday morning, USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Xochitl Torres Small announced the fourth round of funding of up to $150 million in loans, $300 million in loan-grant combinations, and $700 million in grants through the ReConnect Program. The funding is through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in November 2021, intended to be utilized in underserved communities regarding high-speed internet access. Torres-Small says there are specific qualities in each application the USDA is targeting.
“That make sure that no one is left out of the recovery when it comes to COVID-19 and particularly disadvantaged communities,” Torres-Small said. “We also want to make sure that these projects are reaching everyone and ensuring that all rural residents have equitable access to rural development programming. Lastly, making sure that rural places and rural people can be part of the solution when it comes to climate resilience. “
The application window opens on September 6. Eligible applicants include local, state, or territory governments, Native American tribes, corporations, and cooperative organizations.
USDA Rural Development Assistant Administrator Laurel Leverrier says there have been some adjustments from the previous third round of funding.
“Allowing applications to serve areas where at least 50% of the households lack sufficient access to high-speed internet,” said Leverrier. “But we want to ensure that the most underserved communities continue to be supported, which is why we added a funding category where projects have 90% of the households lacking sufficient access to high-speed internet. These applicants that are submitted under this category would not be required to provide a matching fund.”
Leverrier says they are also waiving the match for various categories, including tribal governments, projects to serve counties with persistent poverty, and “socially vulnerable” communities.
Torres-Small says the internet speed required to be considered sufficient is 100 megabits upload and 20 megabits download, with speeds under that considered “underserved.” However, she adds the ReConnect Program does have even stricter requirements.
“Once they received a grant, loan, or combination, they have to provide speeds of at least 100 up and 100 down,” Torres-Small explained. “That increase in download speed is crucial for things like precision ag so that farmers can be the best stewards that they want to be.”
Torres-Small adds the USDA performs ground testing to ensure internet coverage maps are accurate. She says the benefits of increasing the speeds in round three are already making an impact.
“I was in Virginia recently and a farmer came up to me and thanked me for increasing the speed in the ReConnect three rounds, because it is crucial to provide that precision ag to the fields,” said Torres-Small. “We’ve certainly seen since that decision in ReConnect round three, other entities both state and federal, build out at that speed as well.”
The application window for loans, grants, and loan-grant combinations closes on November 2. For more information on the program or to view previous recipients, visit usda.gov/reconnect.