U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday two grants totaling $17.7 million will bring broadband internet infrastructure to rural communities in Scott, Jefferson and Lincoln counties in Arkansas via the department's ReConnect Program.
"This really is critically important to the future of rural America, whether it's distance learning opportunities for our students, telemedicine for our hospitals, doctors, market development for our businesses or precision agriculture for our farmers, the internet, high-speed internet, is absolutely essential," Vilsack said on a press call Wednesday.
Precision agriculture is an integrated crop management system that aims to use new technologies to increase crop yields and profits while reducing farming inputs.
Applications will be reviewed with a favorable eye to projects that aim to help communities recover economically from the effects of the pandemic and disadvantaged communities, Vilsack said.
ReConnect Program funds can be used to construct or improve existing facilities to provide high-speed internet service, toward acquiring an existing system that doesn't currently provide sufficient access to high-speed internet and can pay for "reasonable" pre-application expenses, Vilsack said.
"It's never been clearer that affordable high-speed internet is vital to work, learn and compete in the 21st century, and so long as access to high-speed internet remains out of reach for everyone in our country, we cannot rest," White House senior adviser Mitch Landrieu said on the call.
"That's why the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is investing another $65 billion total to expand internet access to all Americans, including a total of nearly $2 billion in the ReConnect program to boost rural high-speed internet."
For the first project, Scott County Telephone Company, LLC. will receive a more than $1.6 million rural development investment to deploy a "fiber-to-the-premises" network that can provide affordable high-speed internet service to 89 people, 17 farms and a business in Scott County and make it affordable by participating in the FCC's Lifeline and Affordable Connectivity programs.
Fiber-to-the premises relies on fiber optic cables that transmit extensive data at high transfer rates and for newer networks, at higher speeds; the technology can be scaled up over time, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.
For the second project, Southwestern Bell Telephone Company will receive a $16 million rural development investment to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises system and connect 999 people, 100 farms and 33 businesses to high-speed internet, serving socially vulnerable people in Jefferson and Lincoln counties.
The USDA is allocating a total of $759 million in 49 loans and grants for projects that will work toward providing high-speed internet access to rural residents, businesses and farms in 24 states as well as Puerto Rico, Guam and Palau.
These loans and grants come from the third round of funding from USDA's Reconnect Program.
The USDA has announced a $1.6 billion total investment in 2022 for ReConnect Program funding; this is the third round of funding for ReConnect.
The funding pool includes money from President Joe Biden's $550 billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for road, rail and broadband internet projects that was signed into law in November 2021.
From the Infrastructure Law comes the $65 billion to expand broadband internet access across the U.S., with an emphasis on rural communities.
The department began accepting applications for the fourth round of ReConnect Program funding in September and the deadline to submit applications is Nov. 2, Vilsack said.
To qualify for ReConnect Program funding, applicants must serve areas lacking access to internet speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloading and 20 Mbps for uploading.
Applicants must also build facilities that can provide internet service speeds of 100 Mbps for downloading and uploading at every location in an applicant's proposed service area.