Rural Broadband

The latest ReConnect rural broadband awards announcement from USDA was accompanied by considerable fanfare on Friday afternoon when USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Mitch Landrieu, senior advisor to President Biden and White House infrastructure coordinator, offered remarks in a pre-briefing for reporters.

USDA awarded $667 million in ReConnect awards – including $493 million in grants and $174 million in loans. The funding will go toward the costs of broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas. Thirty-eight projects received funding.

ReConnect and other government programs are providing a historic opportunity and a transformational opportunity in rural America,” Vilsack told reporters.

Areas eligible for ReConnect funding are those lacking service at speeds of 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream. Funding recipients are required to deploy service at speeds of at least 100/100 Mbps.

According to Vilsack, USDA still has $260M to award in the ReConnect program, which will be invested “over the next several months.”

Unlike with some other broadband funding programs, there were no major telcos or cablecos among the funding recipients in this ReConnect round. Instead, funding will go primarily to small broadband providers, including rural telcos and electric cooperatives and others.

Most of the awards are for fiber broadband projects, although a few providers will receive funding for fixed wireless or hybrid-fiber coax networks, sometimes in combination with fiber broadband.

Persistent Poverty Areas

USDA noted that some of the funding will go toward Rural Partners Network communities. The federal Rural Partners Network initiative makes resources available to persistent poverty counties, such as a rural desk officer who can direct people in the counties to people to help them navigate federal government bureaucracy.

A USDA spokesman subsequently confirmed in response to an inquiry from Telecompetitor that six projects are in Rural Partners Network areas.

The Rural Partners Network is about “having people on the ground” and helping communities that “in the past have been ignored,” explained Vilsack in response to a question from Telecompetitor on the call with reporters.

Those communities, he said, are “now getting hands-on intense care.”

A county is considered to have persistent poverty if it has a poverty rate of 20% or higher for three decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 11% of the nation’s 3,142 counties fall into that category.

The USDA spokesperson provided Telecompetitor with the names of the six companies that won ReConnect awards for Rural Partners Network communities, and Telecompetitor pulled information about their awards from the awards list as follows:

A complete list of the 38 USDA broadband awards announced through the ReConnect program can be found at this link.

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