The US Department of Agriculture is investing $152 million to provide or improve rural broadband in 14 states, across 20 projects, the agency announced on Monday.
USDA is funneling the funds through the Community Connect Grant Program, the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan Program and the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program. States receiving funds through this set of investments include: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
"Deploying high-speed broadband internet connectivity, or 'e-Connectivity,' in rural America expands access to essential health, educational, social and business opportunities," said Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Donald "DJ" LaVoy in a statement.
These programs have been around for some time. But the amounts and sometimes rules have varied.
The 2018 and 2019 budgets for Community Connect were $30 million each year, down from almost $35 million in 2017, according to a March 2019 Congressional Review of USDA broadband grants and loans. Today's annual loan level for the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program is $690 million, but USDA no longer offers 5% hardship loans because current interest rates are so low.
The Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee program
The 2018 budget for Community Connect was $30 million, according to the program's website. The Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan Program is open to cooperatives, non-profits, limited dividend or mutual associations; state and local governments; federally recognized tribes and public bodies, its documentation says. For its part, the Rural Broadband Access Loan loaned a high of $602 million in 2004; this year, loans add up to just under $30 million.
USDA has local representatives in most states who help operators through the agency's application process, said Chad Rupe, acting administrator for USDA Rural Development's Rural Utilities Services during a presentation at Fiber Connect in Orlando earlier this year. And while the Federal Communications Commission's definition of broadband is 25Mbit/s upload speeds, USDA credits operators planning to deploy infrastructure with symmetric speeds of at least 100 Mbit/s with 100 out of 100 points in that category of the application, he said. Those adhering only to FCC standards get a much lower score, Rupe added.
The agency has numerous examples of operators bringing high-speed fixed-access broadband to rural communities. Among those receiving USDA funding are Logan Telephone Coop, which plans to use $34.4 million in Telecommunications Program loan funds to upgrade FTTH infrastructure in southwest Kentucky; BEK Communications Coop, which is tapping an $844,000 Community Connect grant to install a 49-mile FTTH network in North Dakota's Morton County, and iGo Technology's plan to deliver enhanced broadband in southwest Virginia via a $3 million Community Connect grant. The provider will use some of the grant to deliver free broadband to a community center for two years, one of the program's mandates.
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.