The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced this month the recipients of over $200 million in loans and grants to bring broadband to hundreds of unserved and underserved rural communities. These awards, part of the Community Connect Program, are being financed through USDA’s Telecommunications Program, which has provided financial assistance to more than 500 telecommunications providers nationwide. Community Connect helps fund broadband deployment into rural communities where it is not yet economically viable for private sector providers to deliver service.
Rural areas that lack any existing broadband speed of at least 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream were eligible for the 2017 program, and had to apply by March 2017. The funds could be used for the construction, acquisition, or leasing of facilities, spectrum, land or buildings used to deploy broadband service for all residential and business customers located within the Proposed Funded Service Area (PFSA), including all participating critical community facilities (such as public schools, fire stations, and public libraries). In addition, funds were to be used to provide broadband service free of charge to the critical community facilities for two years. Less than 10% of the grant amount or up to $150,000 may be used for the improvement, expansion, construction or acquisition of a community center that provides online access to the public. Matching funds of at least 15% from non-federal sources are required and can be used for operating costs; partnerships with other federal, state, local, private and non-profit entities are encouraged.
The Community Connect program helps rural communities extend access where broadband service is least likely to be commercially available, but where it can make a tremendous difference in the quality of life for people and businesses. The projects funded by these grants help rural residents tap into the enormous potential of the Internet for jobs, education, healthcare, public safety and community development, and help them compete in a global digital economy. The USDA awarded nine grants in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, as well as 10 loans to expand broadband in rural areas. The loans will provide new or improved broadband access for more than 71,000 residents and businesses in 74 counties in rural parts of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. A detailed list of grant and loan awards is available on the USDA website.