The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) today awarded a $17,463,911 grant to NEK Community Broadband (NEK Broadband).

The grant, through the USDA ReConnect Loan & Grant Program, will be used along with a $5,821,304 investment from NEK Broadband, to make high-speed internet service available to 3,295 people, 94 businesses, 183 farms and 11 educational facilities across 22 towns in Caledonia, Essex and Orleans counties in Vermont.

NEK is a communications union district (CUD). CUDs are groups of at least two towns that work together to get broadband to their communities, often owning the broadband infrastructure that is deployed.

The state of Vermont has been funding a considerable portion of projects undertaken by CUDs. But this was the first ReConnect grant awarded in Vermont or New Hampshire, according to a USDA press release.

In 2021, NEK Broadband received $190,380 through USDA’s Rural Business Development Grant Program to deploy broadband in the western part of Concord, Vermont, and the town of Waterford. The 2021 grant funded 6.7 miles of fiber to benefit businesses and public institutions along the Connecticut River Byway.

NEK apparently takes its name from the Northeast Kingdom area of Vermont, in which member communities are located. The Northeast Kingdom is one of five Rural Economic Area Partnership Zones (REAP Zones) in the US.

REAP Zones were formed to address critical issues related to constraints in economic activity and growth, low density settlement patterns, stagnant or declining employment, and isolation” resulting in “disconnection from markets, suppliers and centers of information and finance,” USDA said.

“For families in Caledonia, Essex and Orleans counties, today is a significant moment,” said Sarah Waring, USDA Rural Development State Director for Vermont and New Hampshire, in a prepared statement.

“With this landmark investment in Vermont’s broadband infrastructure, the people, businesses and organizations in areas of the Northeast Kingdom are one step closer to unprecedented access and speed, resulting in more opportunities to find work, find help, stay healthy and stay in touch.”

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