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The USDA recently announced $152 million in grants and loans for 19 rural broadband projects in 14 states. USDA will invest over $4.2 million in high-speed broadband groundwork, which is expected to improve connectivity and strength for rural areas in Oklahoma. (Journal photo by Lacey Newlin.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced $152 million in grants and loans for 19 rural broadband projects in 14 states. USDA will invest over $4.2 million in high-speed broadband groundwork, which is expected to improve connectivity and signal strength for rural areas in Oklahoma. The USDA Office of Communications says this is one of many funding announcements in the first round of the USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.

“Broadband is pivotal for access to services and information, whether we’re talking about a Main Street business or a family farm. Our mission to increase rural prosperity cannot be achieved without addressing the digital divide our rural communities face because of a lack of high-speed broadband Internet connection,” said Bill Northey, USDA Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation. “Technology and innovation are key in meeting the growing demand in agriculture. We are committed to being a strong partner to rural communities in deploying this critical infrastructure, and I’m excited at the tremendous implications that broadband will have for farmers in rural Oklahoma.”

Leflore County, Oklahoma, is one of the rural areas that will be receiving grant money. Oklahoma State Rep. Lundy Kiger, who represents Leflore County, says the communities of Muse, Whitesboro and Talihina are located about 10 to 12 miles apart and have almost no internet service at all.

“We have quite a few mountains down here and these communities lie between two mountain ranges,” Kiger explained. “Rural Oklahoma, especially the southeast parts, have hardly any internet access. I live in a city close to Fort Smith, Arkansas, with a population of 8,500 and they’re some days it might take 15 to 20 minutes for my internet to load. The people living down south in the mountains might not be able to boot up their browsers at all, so they’re basically cut off.”

“If you want to connect to the world or you want to run a business, you have to have internet,” Kiger said. “It will also help students who are getting their education on the internet.”

In 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to increase broadband infrastructure and services in rural America for the ReConnect project. According to USDA, they 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 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations.

“Oklahoma Western Telephone Company will use ReConnect Program loan funding to deploy a fiber to the home broadband network capable of simultaneous transmission rates of 100 megabits per second or greater,” the USDA press release stated. “The funded service areas include 312 households and 20 farms. The project will facilitate more access to services and information for local residents, and it will improve the overall quality of life for people in the community.”

Rural America is often one-step behind when it comes to technology availability, making it more difficult for businesses to succeed and preventing populations to climb. Setting aside funds to equalize some of these services is a step in the right direction for the future of rural economies and the people who inhabit them.

“This wouldn’t be possible if the federal government didn’t recognize that rural Oklahoma is at a large disadvantage by not having access to the internet,” Kiger said. “It’s going to change a lot of lives.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or lnewlin@hpj.com.

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