The latest round of the USDA ReConnect rural broadband funding program received three times as many applications as there is funding for, said Andy Berke, administrator of USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, which is responsible for awarding the funding.
Berke made his comment on a webcast organized by Broadband.money on Friday.
Round 4, the latest USDA ReConnect round, has a budget of $1.15 billion to cover some of the costs of deploying service to unserved or underserved rural areas. USDA began accepting applications for funding in early September. The application deadline was November 2.
Awards will be made in the form of grants, loans and grant/loan combinations. Funding recipients are required to deploy service supporting speeds of at least 100 Mbps symmetrically.
Previous rounds of the program only required providers to deploy service at speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. But according to Berke, most of the applications that USDA received in Round 3 were for 100/100 Mbps service.
That should help minimize the need for future broadband investment in the areas selected to receive funding, Berke noted.
“The good news about 100 over 100 and why it’s so good is that almost everybody has chosen to do that by building a system that, with some pretty small upgrades, or maybe they can already do it now, can get to a thousand over a thousand (one gig); 10,000 over 10,000 (10 gig); or 25,000 over 25,000 (20 gig),” he said.
“And so, you have this future that you’re building for in places that you don’t want to get left behind and that’s good because Congress probably isn’t going to give us $65 billion next year to do this again, and so we’ve got to maximize what we’re getting out of this funding.”
The $65 billion figure is a reference to funding allocated to broadband in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.
It’s worth noting that although the budget for the current ReConnect funding round is considerably less than funding requested, USDA has an additional $750 million available that it plans to use for a future round, so those network operators that aren’t selected from this batch of applications may have another shot at obtaining funding.
On the Q&A webcast, Telecompetitor asked Berke how important precision agriculture will be and what communications infrastructure and policy are needed to support the technology. Although he didn’t fully answer the latter part of our question, he did a good job of outlining the benefits of precision agriculture.
As many stakeholders have noted, precision agriculture and the communications to support it is becoming a must-have for farmers, as it should enable more profitable use of farmland, Berke noted.
But he also noted some benefits that haven’t received as much attention.
For example, he said the technology could enhance animal welfare by, for example, monitoring feed based on sensors in the barn. In addition, he said precision agriculture should improve the quality of life for farmers. He noted, for example, that farmers will be in a better position to go away for a day or so because they will be able to check on the status of the farm remotely.