In the third week of October, the Trump administration announced the second round of grants and loans from the ReConnect rural broadband program. The program is designed to provide broadband services to unserved and underserved rural areas where it is not profitable for commercial providers to build networks.

But the need is not any less great; promoters of ag technology say the many innovations investors and startups are developing to transform farming require reliable broadband connectivity. Rural healthcare, especially in the COVID-19 era, depends on robust broadband connectivity.

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny 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.

In Round One of the ReConnect Program, USDA invested $698 million to bring high-speed broadband connectivity to approximately 167,000 households, 17,000 rural small businesses and farms, and more than 500 health care centers, educational facilities and critical community facilities located in 33 states.

The application window for Round Two funding closed on April 15. On April 20, USDA announced it had received 172 applications for $1.57 billion in Round Two. The second round will enable USDA “to implement innovative new solutions to rural connectivity by leveraging financial options with our partners and continuing the success of the first round of funding.”

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now—as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency. Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband,” Perdue said. “I am so proud of our rural communities who have been working day in and day out, just like they always do, producing the food and fiber America depends on. We need them more than ever during these trying times and expanding access to this critical infrastructure will help ensure rural America prospers for years to come.”

Minnesota received a single grant, to Consolidated Telephone Company, which will use a $3 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 819 people, 34 businesses and 25 farms to high-speed broadband internet in Morrison County.

Michigan

Michigan received $10.1 million total in Round Two funding. Allband Multimedia LLC will use a $3.5 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fixed wireless network to connect 3,678 people, 64 farms, 54 businesses, four educational facilities and a post office to high-speed broadband internet in Alpena, Alcona and Iosco counties in Michigan. Southwest Michigan Communications Inc. will use a $3.3 million ReConnect grant and a $3.3 million ReConnect loan to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 3,203 people, 40 farms and 27 businesses to high-speed broadband internet in Van Buren, Kalamazoo and Allegan counties.

Missouri

In Missouri, the Stoutland Telephone Company, doing business as Missouricom, will use a $4.6 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network, which connects 2,390 people, 78 farms and 12 businesses to high-speed broadband internet in Dallas, Camden and Laclede counties.

Marshall Municipal Utilities will use a $7.5 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 3,890 people, 433 farms, 63 businesses, two public schools, a fire station and a post office to high-speed broadband internet in Saline County.

Steelville Telephone Exchange, DBA STE Communications, will use a $14.8 million ReConnect grant and a $14.8 million ReConnect loan to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 4,756 people, 314 farms, 55 businesses, two fire stations and a post office to high-speed broadband internet in Iron, Dent, Crawford and Washington counties.

Total Highspeed LLC was awarded a $24.9 million ReConnect grant and a $24.9 million ReConnect loan. These funds will provide a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 26,077 people, 720 farms, 417 businesses, nine fire stations and five public schools to high-speed broadband internet in Christian, Greene, Lawrence, Stone and Webster counties.

“In Missouri and across the country, technology and innovation are vital to agricultural production,” USDA Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce said. “Our commitment to invest in rural America cannot be achieved without addressing the digital divide our rural communities face because of a lack of high-speed broadband internet.”

Kentucky

In Kentucky, West Kentucky Rural Telephone Cooperative Corporation Inc. will use a $11.7 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network. This network will connect 8,206 people, 204 farms, 82 businesses, four post offices, three fire stations, two health care facilities and two schools to high-speed broadband internet in Graves County, Kentucky, and Alexander, Union, Pulaski, Johnson and Massac counties in Illinois.

Rural broadband projects in New Mexico, Alabama, Washington and North Carolina also received ReConnect Round Two funding.

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

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