The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has begun accepting applications for the RUS broadband loan program for fiscal year 2019 and will continue to do so through September 30, 2019. The total amount available for the program has not yet been revealed, but applicants will have the opportunity to apply for loans valued between $100,000 and $25 million.

The RUS broadband loan program provides low-interest loans for the construction of broadband networks in rural areas. Loans target areas lacking broadband service at speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. Funding recipients will be required to build out service providing speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps, and priority will be given to applications proposing to serve areas with the highest percentage of locations lacking 25/3 Mbps service.

RUS Broadband Loan Changes
The target broadband speeds and potential loan amounts have not changed from last year’s RUS broadband loan program. However, administrators will be considering some new criteria in making decisions for fiscal year 2019.

As the USDA explains in a notice in the federal register, applicants are encouraged to consider projects that will support recommendations made in the Rural Prosperity Task Force report to help improve life in rural America. That task force, created by President Trump, identified several areas where broadband can help improve rural America, including developing the rural economy, harnessing technological innovation, supporting a rural workforce and improving quality of life.

“Applicants are encouraged to consider projects that provide measurable results in helping rural communities build robust and sustainable economies through strategic investments in infrastructure, partnerships and innovation,” said the USDA in the Federal Register notice.

These recommendations are in keeping with other comments we have heard from the USDA in recent months. In discussing the upcoming $600 million rural broadband pilot program that the USDA is planning, one USDA official noted in August that the USDA might consider criteria beyond simple need in determining who should get funding. She pointed to precision agriculture, smart forestry, telehealth and distance learning as examples of how broadband can benefit rural areas, hinting that the USDA might be interested in funding deployments that involve using broadband to achieve economic goals by supporting technologies such as those.

Earlier this month, the USDA awarded $91 million in rural broadband funding for fiscal year 2019 to projects in 12 states.

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