WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday announced with great fanfare a $600 million pilot project to build broadband infrastructure in rural America.
"High-speed internet e-connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope that today rural communities kick off their rural broadband project planning," Perdue said in a ceremony at the USDA headquarters building. He explained how telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, Internet service providers and municipalities may apply for funding through USDA's new ReConnect Program.
Our policy is "to connect America, not divide it," Perdue said.
"We don't want an urban-rural divide in the country," he said, then added, "When are we going to stop having to drive rural kids to places where they can do homework by skimming off Wi-Fi from fast-food restaurants?"
Jannine Miller, senior adviser for rural infrastructure to Perdue, who introduced the secretary, said that "connecting America is truly transformative."
Chad Parker, the Rural Utilities Service assistant administrator for telecommunications policy, explained that USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants with applications due to USDA by April 29 as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations with applications due May 29 and $200 million for low-interest loans with applications due by June 28.
Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload, Parker said.
"Approved projects must create access speeds of at least 25 mbps upload and 3 mbps download," Parker added. Priority will be awarded for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to rural homes, businesses and farms.
"USDA seeks to stretch these funds as far as possible by leveraging existing networks and systems without overbuilding existing services greater than 10/1 mbps," USDA said in a news release.
Evaluation criteria include connecting agricultural production and marketing, e-commerce, health care and education facilities.
Perdue also noted that the program would be helpful to precision agriculture, which he said may be more important to increasing agricultural productivity than the changes to genetics in recent decades. Previous research by USDA has demonstrated that high-capacity broadband is critical to all aspects of rural prosperity, including the ability to grow and attract businesses, retain and develop talent, and maintain rural quality of life, USDA noted.
To help customers with the application process, USDA is holding a series of online webinars and regional in-person workshops. The full list of upcoming public webinars and workshops can be found at the ReConnect Program's resource portal at www.reconnect.usda.gov.
Perdue noted that the need for higher-speed broadband service was one of the findings of the report to the president from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, which he chaired.
The funding for the program came from the 2018 omnibus appropriations bill. Several House members who played a role in passing that legislation, including House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., were in the audience for the event and joined Perdue for a news conference.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in a statement, "I'm pleased the USDA is finally moving forward on the $600 million high-speed internet investment Congress provided in the 2018 omnibus. Expanding high-speed Internet access is vital to the growth and success of our small towns and rural communities in Michigan and across the country."
When the bill was passed in March, Stabenow noted that the $600 million for rural broadband "represents the largest investment in broadband expansion since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009."
Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump for technology, said in a statement, "Millions of rural Americans are on the wrong side of the digital divide, missing out on many of the benefits and opportunities of today's digital age. In rural areas, seniors lack access to modern health care, students are left behind on educational opportunities, and small businesses in the heartland can't sell their goods to a global market.
"Today, the Trump administration, led by Secretary Perdue and USDA, took important action to bring high-speed internet to rural communities through the launch of the ReConnect Program. This new and innovative pilot program is dedicated to spurring broadband deployment and investment in the areas that need it most. We can't allow rural America to fall behind, and today's announcement is a critical step to help all Americans succeed in the 21st century."
Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Co-operative Association, said, "Secretary Perdue's announcement lays the groundwork for an improved approach to making broadband a reality across rural America. This pilot program and the strong broadband provisions included in the 2018 farm bill highlight a much-needed shift in federal policy to make rural broadband a possibility for the estimated 23 million Americans who lack it.
"More than 100 electric co-ops have launched broadband deployment projects to help modernize rural economies," Matheson added. "We are very pleased that the pilot program adopts a 25/3 sufficiency standard and will prioritize applications that would deliver speeds in excess of the 25/3 minimum standard."
Matheson said "all capable providers should have equal access to federal funding" and that grants should be prioritized in areas with the lowest population density "given that is a prime cost driver of the lack of broadband deployment."
USDA's broadband portal: https://www.usda.gov/…
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