U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced May 6 the U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing $71 million to provide last-mile broadband service via fiber-optic cable to unserved and underserved rural areas in Kansas and Oklahoma.

This funding is part of USDA’s round one investments through the ReConnect Pilot Program. Further rounds of grants and loans are forthcoming, said Perdue, and will be announced shortly. The areas served roughly surround Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Making brief statements during the announcement were Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who sits on the  U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; Blayne Arthur, Oklahoma’s secretary of agriculture, who compared the ReConnect initiative to rural electrification; Chad Rupe, who heads the Rural Services Utilities Administration; and Mike Beam, secretary of agriculture for Kansas. Rupe noted that members of the Cherokee, Pawnee and Osage nations were among those being served by the project.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now – as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency,” Perdue said. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband.”  

The CEOs of the companies involved also spoke. Totah Communications Inc. is receiving an $18.9 million loan and an $18.9 million grant to construct 621 miles of fiber-to-the-premises broadband infrastructure. This award will extend broadband availability to 8,155 residents, 20 farms and 15 businesses in Rogers, Nowata, Washington and Osage counties in Oklahoma; and Montgomery and Chautauqua counties Kansas.

Mark Gailey, CEO of Totah, noted the difficulties of installing fiber-optic cable in an area that is partly mountainous and regularly experiences straight-line winds. Those conditions, though, mean it makes more sense to bury cable rather than string it on poles.

 KanOkla Shidler LLC is receiving a $15 million loan and a $15 million grant to construct 251 miles of FTTP in Osage County, Oklahoma. This project will benefit 2,101 residents, 26 farms and 28 businesses.

 Cross Cable Television LLC is receiving a $2.2 million USDA grant to construct a FTTP network in Le Flore and McIntosh counties in Oklahoma. This project will benefit 265 residents, 13 farms and six businesses.

 Carnegie Telephone Company is receiving a $1.2 million loan to construct FTTP infrastructure in the town of Carnegie, Oklahoma, in Caddo County. This project will benefit 926 residents.

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100% loan, 100% grant, and loan-grant combinations.

On April 20, 2020, USDA announced it had received 172 applications for $1.57 billion in round two of the ReConnect Program. The second round will enable USDA to implement innovative new solutions to rural connectivity by leveraging financial options with its partners. The application window for round two closed April 15.

To learn more about ReConnect Program eligibility, technical assistance and recent announcements, visit www.usda.gov/reconnect.

USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks.

To subscribe to USDA Rural Development updates, visit the  GovDelivery subscriber page at https://bit.ly/2Wm5LML.

David Murray can be reached at journal@hpj.com.

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