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By NEMO RPC
On October 22, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a significant expansion of access to high-speed internet, health care and educational services for millions of rural Americans nationwide. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that on November 24 USDA will begin accepting applications for up to $1.15 billion in loans and grants to expand the availability of broadband in rural areas. USDA is making the funding available through the ReConnect Program. The deadline for applications will be February 22, 2022.
To be eligible for ReConnect Program funding, an applicant must serve an area without broadband service at speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) (download) and 20 Mbps (upload), and commit to building facilities capable of providing broadband service at speeds of 100 Mbps (download and upload) to every location in its proposed service area. In making funding decisions, USDA will prioritize projects that will serve low-density rural areas with locations lacking internet access services at speeds of at least 25 Mbps (download) and 3 Mbps (upload). In making funding decisions, the USDA will also consider, among other things, the economic needs of the community to be served; the extent which a provider will offer affordable service options; a project’s commitment to strong labor standards; and whether a project is serving tribal lands or is submitted by a local government, Tribal Government, non-profit or cooperative.
USDA has simplified the application process and has expanded the program significantly. For example, ReConnect will now offer 100 percent grants for certain projects on tribal lands and in socially vulnerable communities. Up to $350,000,000 is available for grants. The maximum amount of grant funds that can be requested in an application is $25,000,000. However, to encourage broadband deployment in remote areas, if an applicant provides supporting information that demonstrates that the PFSA(s) is comprised 100 percent of areas classified by the USDA Economic Research Service as Frontier and Remote Area (FAR) Level 4, the applicant may request up to $35,000,000
The entities considered eligible to apply for assistance under the ReConnect Program include:
Limited Liability Companies and Limited Liability Partnerships
Cooperatives or mutual organizations
States or local governments, including any agency, subdivision, instrumentality of political subdivision thereof
A territory or possession of the United States
An Indian Tribe, as defined in Section 4 of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (25 U.S.C. §450b)
The Department plans to make available up to $200 million in ReConnect Program loans, up to $250 million in loan/grant combinations, up to $350 million in grants with a 25 percent matching requirement, and up to $350 million in grants with no matching requirement for projects in tribal and socially vulnerable communities.