Rules for Round 4 of the USDA ReConnect rural broadband funding program are scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday. According to an “unpublished” version of the rules available on the Federal Register site, USDA will accept applications for the new funding round between September 6 and November 2.
USDA was allotted $1.9 billion for Round 4 of the ReConnect program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, although the budget announced in the notice of funding opportunity totals only $1.15 billion. A USDA spokesperson told us the remaining funding would be made available in a future round.
The ReConnect Round 4 rules call for the program to target areas where not everyone has “sufficient access to broadband,” defined as service supporting speeds of at least 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream. Companies awarded funding are required to deploy service at speeds of at least 100 Mbps symmetrically.
ReConnect Round 4 Rules
As with previous rounds of the program, USDA plans to award funding in the form of low-interest loans, grants and loan/grant combinations, but there are some additional sub-categories. The rules call for:
- Up to $150 million to be available for applicants requesting 100% loans. The maximum amount that can be requested in an application is $50 million. Eligible areas include those where at least 50% of locations lack sufficient access to broadband.
- For applicants requesting grant/loan combinations, up to $150 million in grants and $150 million in loans will be available. The maximum amount that can be requested in an application is $50 million, to be evenly split between a grant and a loan. Here, too, eligible areas are those where at least 50% of locations lack sufficient access to broadband.
- Up to $700 million is available for 100% grants, including $150 million for areas where at least 50% of locations lack sufficient access to broadband, $200 million for areas where at least 90% of locations lack sufficient access, and $350 million for Alaska native corporations, tribal governments, colonias, persistent poverty areas and socially vulnerable communities where at least 50% of locations lack sufficient access to broadband.
The maximum amount of grant funds that can be requested in an application is $25 million unless:
- the applicant is targeting areas where 50%-90% of locations cannot get 25/3 Mbps service
- or the applicant is applying in the category targeting Alaska native corporations, etc. and the applications provide information showing that the proposed service area is comprised 100% of areas classified by the USDA Economic Research Service as FAR Level 4, meaning that the area is very remote. In that case, the applicant may request up to $35 million.
Applicants requesting 100% grants must provide 25% in matching funds unless they are applying in the category targeting areas where 90% of locations have insufficient broadband or in the Alaska Native corporations, etc. category, in which case there is no matching funds requirement.
The minimum amount that can be requested in any ReConnect program application is $100,000.
If not all the funding in a category is awarded, USDA may move the unawarded funding to other categories.
All applicants must meet submission and evaluation requirements contained in the Code of Federal Regulations.
In addition, any applications containing a grant component will be evaluated based on a scoring system as follow:
- Rurality of proposed service area (25 points)
- Level of existing service (25 points)
- Economic need of the community (20 points)
- Affordability (20 points)
- Labor standards (20 points)
- Tribal areas (15 points)
- Local governments, non-profits and cooperatives (15 points)
- Socially vulnerable communities (15 points)
- Net neutrality (10 points)
- Wholesale broadband services (10 points)
Additional details can be found in the unpublished ReConnect Round 4 rules at this link.
Updated with information from a USDA spokesperson, who also confirmed that the version of the rules officially published on August 4 is identical to the version made available earlier in the week.