rural landscapeThe US Department of Agriculture this week said it is investing more than $23 million in two broadband projects in North Carolina through two mechanisms of the ReConnect Program. Both North Carolina USDA ReConnect awards went to small rural telecom/ broadband providers.

The larger investment is a $21.6 million grant to the Atlantic Telephone Membership Corp. to deploy an FTTP network connecting 17,424 people, 209 farms, 285 businesses, 198 educational facilities, nine health care facilities, seven fire stations and seven post offices in Pender County.

The grant is part of the $550 million second round of the ReConnect program. In all, 172 applications totaling $1.57 billion were made for the round. The first round resulted in an announced investment of $698 million to provide services to about 167,000 households, 17,000 rural small businesses and farms and more than 500 health care centers, educational facilities and critical community facilities in 33 states.

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The other grant, for $2.3 million, is to the Randolph Telephone Membership Corp. for the deployment of an FTTP network that will connect 3,333 people, 17 farms, 26 businesses, and nine educational facilities in Moore County.

This grant is part of the $100 million infusion into the ReConnect Program through the CARES Act. The act was passed in March to help moderate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It covers projects that were rejected in the first round of funding, as long as the new applications cover the same footprint.The CARES Act ReConnect program, which only awards grants, has generated 11 applications and several awards already have been made.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now – as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency. Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a press release about the North Carolina USDA ReConnect Awards.

The ReConnect Program’s goal of bridging the digital divide in rural areas has wide support. This week, the Internet Innovation Alliance found that 62% want Congress to allocate funds to immediately reach those areas not served by a broadband provider. Ninety-one percent said that lack of broadband access in rural areas is a problem, with 63% saying that the problem is “major.”

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