Earlier today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it is extending the ReConnect broadband program round two deadline to March 31, 2020. The agency will distribute $550 million this year in grants and loans to expand connectivity in rural America. Previously, applications were due by March 16 to be considered for the funding.
In a USDA press release, Deputy Under Secretary Bette Brand said:
By extending the ReConnect Program application deadline, we are helping even more qualified organizations access the essential funding to make high-speed broadband connectivity a reality for rural communities across America.
Round and Round
Congress approved the initial $600 million for the first phase of the USDA's ReConnect program back in 2018. In 2019, the agency accepted round one applications for projects in underserved rural areas that haven't received goverment broadband funding before. Eligible entities included small Internet Service Providers (ISPs), rural electric and telephone cooperatives, local governments and tribal networks.
So far, USDA has announced 70 grant and loan recipients across 31 states in ReConnect round one. We’ve written about a number of these awardees including, recently, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, the Town of Arrowsic in Maine, and Alaska-based Cordova Telecom Cooperative.
Round two of the ReConnect program will distribute an additional $550 million, with awards to be announced later in 2020.
Despite the clear boost that ReConnect funding will give to rural connectivity, USDA has faced some criticism over the program. Commenters note that the application process can be complicated for smaller providers to complete without paying for outside consultants and also that eligible areas are limited by inaccurate data and unnecessary restrictions.
In particular, the ReConnect program's exclusion of areas receiving federal satellite subsidies is leaving some rural communities behind. Learn how subsidizing satellite ISPs can actually widen the rural digital divide.
Late last month, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden raised these issues in two letters to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. The letters, joined by several Oregon Representatives and U.S. Senators, asked the agency to correct the “administrative hurdles and eligibility problems within the ReConnect Program that have put critical broadband infrastructure assistance out of reach for Oregonians and communities across America.”