The White House announced $714 million in USDA grants and loans to expand access to high-speed internet service in 19 states from South Carolina to California on Monday. With the new round of funding, the USDA has put $2.45 billion into rural broadband through its ReConnect program in the past 18 months.
“For all Americans, the internet is an essential tool to access education, health care and jobs,” said White House infrastructure adviser Mitch Landrieu during a briefing. “In rural America, high-speed internet can connect people to opportunities that are miles or even states away.”
The ReConnect program is directed at rural areas with lower-quality internet service and calls for construction of facilities that can provide high-speed service of 100 megabits per second for downloading and uploading data. Since President Biden took office, the USDA provided financial assistance to 142 projects to bring high-speed service to 314,000 rural Americans.
Some $65 billion was allotted in the 2021 infrastructure law for an “Internet for All” initiative. In the next three weeks, $42 billion of it will be divided among states based on their needs, said an administration official. The minimum award would be $100 million. “You’ll be able to see what the allocation is to rural America, which will be substantial,” he said.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said ReConnect provided important benefits when asked about the comparatively high cost of reaching some homes, businesses and schools. For example, Cal-Ore Telephone Co, based in Doris, California, was granted nearly $25 million to deploy a “fiber-to-the-premises” network serving 757 people, 45 businesses, 14 farms and four educational facilities in lightly populated Modoc and Siskiyou counties in northern California.
Rural areas provide the nation with food, energy and industrial materials, said Vilsack. “So if you want to talk about efficiency, I think you have to take a look at the entire totality of the contribution that rural America makes to the rest of the nation,” he said. “You can see this is money well invested in providing economic opportunity for people who live, work and raise their families in a very important part of this country.”
“The digital divide is real and it hurts rural America,” said Georgia Rep. David Scott, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. “Rural Americans are twice as likely as rural ones to lack high-speed internet at home and the majority of people who do not have internet access live in rural areas.”