Capito, agriculture secretary announced new rural broadband program

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) recently joined Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in announcing that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America.

Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities may apply to USDA’s new program for funding to connect rural areas that currently have insufficient broadband service.

USDA Rural Development is the primary agency delivering the program, with assistance from other federal partners.

As a leader on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Capito helped secure funds in the FY2018 budget for this broadband pilot program, known as the ReConnect Program. Through her Capito Connect initiative, Senator Capito has made improving connectivity and closing the digital divide in West Virginia a top priority and has worked to advance efforts and deliver resources to support programs like the ReConnect Program.

“Connectivity is essential for individuals, families, students, businesses, and communities to succeed. Without access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet, rural communities and rural states like West Virginia are being left behind when it comes to education, health care, job creation and retention, and overall economic potential,”  Capito said. “Programs like this one and other efforts I’ve been working to promote through my Capito Connect initiative can help us close the digital divide, improve the lives of those living in our rural communities, and grow and diversify our economy. That’s exactly why I worked hard to ensure funding for the ReConnect Program was included in the FY2018 funding agreement and will continue to push for similar resources.

“I’m excited Secretary Perdue asked me to be part of this announcement, and I appreciate how he, President Trump, and the entire administration are working to make rural America and rural broadband such priorities.”

“High-speed internet e-Connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope that today rural communities kick-off their rural broadband project planning,” Perdue said. “Under the leadership of President Trump, USDA has worked to understand the true needs of rural communities facing this challenge so we can be strong partners to create high-speed, reliable broadband e-Connectivity.”

USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants (applications due to USDA by April 29), as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations (applications due May 29), and $200 million for low-interest loans (applications due by June 28).

Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.

Approved projects must create access speeds of at least 25 mbps upload and 3 mbps download. Priority will be awarded for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to rural homes, businesses, and farms. USDA seeks to stretch these funds as far as possible by leveraging existing networks and systems without overbuilding existing services greater than 10/1 mpbs.

The goal is to connect rural communities to support agricultural production and marketing, e-Commerce, health care, and education. Previous research by USDA has demonstrated that high-capacity broadband is critical to all aspects of rural prosperity, including the ability to grow and attract businesses, retain and develop talent, and maintain rural quality of life.

To help potential applicants with the application process, USDA has created a resource portal at reconnect.usda.gov, and the department is holding online webinars and regional in-person workshops. The regional workshops will be held in southeastern Alabama; northcentral Oregon; Newton, Kansas; Washington, Pennsylvania; Gila River, Arizona; and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. The first technical assistance webinar will be held on Tuesday, December 18. The full list of upcoming public webinars and workshops can be found at the ReConnect Program’s resource portal at reconnect.usda.gov.

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the task force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force.

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