The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently awarded a $2.85 million grant to Forked Deer Electric Cooperative headquartered in Halls, Tennessee, and $9.75 million to Orangeburg County, South Carolina to develop broadband infrastructure. The awardees will use the ReConnect grants to construct or expand existing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access to thousands of households, critical community facilities, and educational facilities.
A Reconnect Primer
In 2019, Congress allocated $600 million for the ReConnect Program to help expand high-quality Internet access to rural America. Applicants can apply for a 100 percent grant, 100 percent loan, or a grant-loan combination. The ReConnect Program provides funding to allow for-profit companies, rural cooperatives, local governments, and tribes to deploy broadband infrastructure under specific guidelines. The service area for qualified applicants must be rural communities with 90 - 100 percent of the population considered "underserved," defined as Internet access speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload or lower.
As we reported in September, more than half of the applications submitted came from cooperatives and local governments.
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Orangeburg County was awarded federal stimulus funds in 2010 and added around $4 million of their own money for rural broadband projects. Shortly following the stimulus package award, the state legislature enacted a law discouraging simlar local investment. The law requires local governments to charge rates for broadband Internet services similar rates to those of private companies, even if service could be provided at a lower cost. This law effectively limits local broadband authority and discourages communities from developing publicly owned networks.
Orangeburg County is pressing on, however, in order to connect some of the community's least-connected households. They'll use the ReConnect grant of $9.75 million to expand existing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) infrastructure. The grant will offer broadband Internet access to almost 4,000 households, 9 critical community facilities, 13 educational facilities, and one health care center within an area of more than 174 square miles.
Rural areas in green on this map show the regions where the county plans to expand the current infrastructure. Existing fiber connectivity areas are shaded in orange.
In Halls, Tennessee, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, personally delivered the first ReConnect grant to Forked Deer Electric Cooperative. At $2.8 million, the co-op will use the funds to deploy FTTH to residents and businesses in rural areas of Lauderdale County. The service area includes 347 households and one critical community facility over an area of 435 square miles.
Forked Deer worked with consultant Conexon, which has been leading the charge to get rural communities connected by helping cooperatives with grant applications, design and engineering, and planning. Conexon was one of the first to see the organic progression that electric cooperatives, such as Forked Deer, are making from delivering electricity to expanding broadband in rural areas.
Listen to Christopher and Jonathan Chambers from Conexon discuss the pivotal role electric cooperatives are filling in rural broadband deployment.