The USDA today released the rules for how it will award $600 million in broadband loans and grants for the Rural Broadband Pilot program created by Congress earlier this year and to be known now as the ReConnect program. The USDA ReConnect Rural Broadband Pilot rules apply to a wide range of potential participants, including state and local governments and non-profit organizations, as well as for-profit corporations, limited liability companies, cooperatives and Indian tribes.

Plans call for the USDA to make three different types of awards, including:

  • $200 million in grants, with a requirement for 25% in matching funds, with an application deadline of April 29, 2019
  • $200 million in 50% grant/50% loan combinations, with an application deadline of May 29, 2019
  • $200 million in low-interest loans, with an application deadline of June 28, 2019

The USDA has not yet revealed when it will begin accepting applications, but on a webcast, Acting Administrator of the USDA Telecom Program Chad Parker said the date will be included in a notice to be published in the Federal Register on February 29, 2019.

USDA ReConnect Rural Broadband Pilot Rules
In making today’s rule announcement, Parker said awardees will be required to deploy broadband at speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream to “every” farm, household, and hospital inside the service area.

Awards will be made on the basis of a point system, which will grant extra points for projects providing symmetrical speeds of 100 Mbps, he said.

Other evaluation criteria will include “how many” farms, businesses, and healthcare and educational facilities the project will serve, he added.

To be eligible for a 100% loan or 50% loan / 50% grant, the service area must be in a rural area where 90% of the households do not have sufficient broadband access. To be eligible for a 100% grant, the service area must be rural and 100% of the households must lack sufficient broadband access.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, on hand for today’s webcast, noted that “broadband connectivity is part of rural prosperity” and “we don’t want an urban-rural divide in this country.”

He added that “a proof of concept is what this is about,” echoing a theme that other USDA officials also have emphasized in recent months.

Additional information about the USDA ReConnect Rural Broadband Pilot Rules can be found on a new USDA website focused on the program at this link.

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