‘The internet is no longer a luxury’: $667M from USDA for rural broadband

By: - August 23, 2023 5:27 am

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new round of funding for rural broadband loans and grants. (John Lamb/Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will spend another $667 million on rural broadband loans and grants, the department said Monday, marking the fourth round of Biden administration funding under a program that the 2021 infrastructure law invigorated.

Nearly three-quarters of the funding, $493 million, will go toward grants, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on a Friday press call previewing the announcement. The latest round of funding awards will go to 38 projects in 22 states and the Marshall Islands, according to a release from the USDA.

Nearly $100 million will go toward grants for three projects in Alaska, which is receiving more than any other state in this round of funding. Among the states included in this round are: Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

New Hampshire has received separate federal funding to expand broadband. In June, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced how it has allocated $196.5 million to the state as part of a larger $42.45 billion provided to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five territories to deploy affordable, reliable high-speed Internet.

The University of New Hampshire is mapping broadband access across the state. New Hampshire Broadband Mapping Initiative aims to identify where internet access is available, how it can become more widely available, and how to encourage higher levels of broadband adoption and usage in the state, according to the website.

Each recipient of the latest funding requires U.S. House and Senate sponsors and, because of the program’s rural focus, many of the House sponsors are Republicans. Some of both chambers’ most conservative members endorsed projects that are funded. A full list of projects is available here.

Most are small telecommunications companies or cooperatives.

The USDA’s ReConnect program is responsible for selecting grant and loan recipients, seeking to fill gaps in high-speed internet access. The program was created on a trial basis in 2018, and Congress added billions in new funding for it in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law.

The grants and loans allow for broadband access in areas that otherwise would not be profitable for the private sector to provide service.

“We’re delivering this funding because the internet is no longer a luxury,” Mitch Landrieu, the White House coordinator for the infrastructure law, said on the Friday call. “It’s a necessity to fully participate today’s society.”

High-speed internet would allow better access to services including telehealth, remote learning, precision farming and other opportunities in rural areas, Landrieu said.

President Joe Biden believes in building infrastructure in all parts of the country, Vilsack said.

“The reality is that we have faced some challenging times in rural places,” the former Iowa governor said. “When we talk about broadband and high-speed internet it really is basically creating the opportunity for people, regardless of their ZIP code, to have a sense of connection, a sense that the federal government cares deeply about their economic opportunity and about their families.”

The funding also serves a climate purpose, Vilsack said.

Farmers looking to take advantage of new climate-smart commodities markets, a program that pays agricultural producers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, would need access to technology that depends on high-speed internet, he said.

High-speed internet is also useful for precision farming, a management practice that requires a large amount of high-resolution data, Landrieu said.

The infrastructure law provided $65 billion for high-speed broadband deployment. The administration is aiming to spend up to $90 billion on broadband deployment, Landrieu said.

Vilsack announced $714 million in ReConnect loans and grants in June and $500 million in September 2022. More funding announcements should be expected in the coming months, he said Friday.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.