USDA ReConnect Round 3 Rewards High-Speed, Open Access, Locally Driven Networks

The USDA’s ReConnect program has disbursed more than $1.5 billion since its inception in December 2018. On the whole, the USDA seems to have done a better job than the FCC of leading to new broadband infrastructure which is fast, affordable, and locally controlled. Much of the money it has given out has gone to community-driven solutions, with Tribes, electric and telephone cooperatives, and local governments applying for and winning awards. The program has also seen partnerships between counties and other public as well as private entities. 

But there’s a lot to like about the newest round of funding, totaling $1.2 billion more (representing a full 80 percent of all money given out so far). The application process for Round 3 began at the end of November, with applications due by February 22, 2022.

Announced at the end of October, the new scoring metric represents a significant step in the right direction, increasing speed definitions on both sides of the application. But there are other things to like here as well. 

First, it gives explicit preference for projects that are community-driven, with CTC Technology and Energy writing of the “preference for local governments, non-profits, and cooperatives as applicants and additional points to those applications.” Second, it will likely result in at least a little more marketplace competition, by not only providing significantly more flexibility in defining proposed funded service areas, but in giving additional points to open access networks as well. Third, it lets applicants demonstrate eligibility completely separate from the FCC’s Form 477 data. Fourth, for the first time the program awards extra points to applications that will bring connectivity solutions to “socially vulnerable communities,” and provides a mapping tool to help assess eligibility under that criterion.

And fifth, it includes $350 million (more than a quarter of the total) for applications in Tribal territory and for “socially vulnerable communities.” What’s more, the money set aside from Tribal applicants does not require any capital match; an acknowledgement by the program that grant funding programs which require local money discriminate against those - like Tribal communities - with less access to capital because of decades of policies which have made it harder to build community capacity and intergenerational wealth.

There are additional points given to applications that nod towards net neutrality, affordability, and a host of other positive moves. CTC Technology and Energy has published a useful analysis and breakdown here, with some additional advice for applicants thinking about going after the funding. Doug Dawson has also helpfully written about the list, with his thoughts on the program. 

Applications for ReConnect Round 3 are due February 22, 2022.

For more, listen to how one electric cooperative in southern California is connecting its members on Episode 447 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.