Tag: "federal grant"

Posted October 21, 2021 by Maren Machles

Situated in rural Central New York, Madison County (pop. 71,000) was named in honor of America’s fourth President, James Madison. But it was the region’s history of growing hops for beer that really put the county on the map. By 1859, New York state produced 80 percent of all hops grown in the U.S., thanks in no small measure to the crops in Madison County.

Today, while the community still celebrates this history at the annual HopFest, county leaders are now focused on the future and how to ensure the region does not get left in the dust by missing out on an essential economic development ingredient: high-speed Internet connectivity. In a modern economy, broadband infrastructure is indispensable in general terms and specifically for the efficient operation of precision agriculture

With a focus now on the digital landscape, Madison County planners have embarked on a project to bring fiber to the farm as well as thousands of other other residents and businesses across the region.

What really got things off the ground, or rather into the ground, was the county being awarded a USDA ReConnect grant last year. Madison is the only county in United States to directly receive ReConnect grant funding in FY 2020.

In July, the USDA announced it would grant $10.1 million in ReConnect funds in support of the project to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network that will connect 2,170 people, 50 farms and 30 businesses to high-speed broadband in Madison County as part of a larger countywide project. The county will work with private Internet Service provider (ISP) Empire Access to eventually bring fiber connectivity to nearly 7,600 households in the region.

A Fertile Land For Fiber

Two years ago, Madison County officials decided to make broadband a top priority. The most underserved area of Madison is in the southern part of the county, where DSL and satellite were primarily offered, with limited addresses eligible for cable access. 

The county held community forums. The response was overwhelming: frustrations with the limited, unreliable options had been long brewing in...

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Posted March 24, 2021 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

Franklin, Kentucky’s (pop. 8,400) electric utility is gearing up for an expansion of its partnership with Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation (WRECC) with the help of $2.3 million from the recent FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The new partnership will allow Franklin EPB to add new service to roughly 250 locations adjacent to a current project in the area.

The expansion project will add subscribers in the northeast region of Simpson County and nearby parts of the city of Franklin in the south-central part of the state, where the two entities are operating a two-area fiber pilot.

It represents the growth of a collaboration between Franklin EPB and the electric cooperative. In 2019, the two partnered up to deploy service with Franklin EPB leasing dark fiber from the cooperative and acting as service provider to “350 of its customers in northeast Simpson County and in an area on the southeast side of Franklin.” The project brought symmetrical 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) and 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) options for $60 and $80/month to those locations and has brought service to a lot of happy members

 “Providing high-speed Internet [access] in rural areas has been and continues to be an important issue nationwide. Fortunately, we have been able to develop a successful model with Franklin EPB. We’re delighted to be able to expand our service in Simpson County immediately thanks to the RDOF funding,” said Dewayne McDonald, President and CEO of Warren RECC, at the announcement. He continued to emphasize that "part of our mission is to improve the quality of life for our members. This expansion represents a giant leap in progress for them, and we’re excited about the momentum. For the areas we didn’t win, we hope the companies that did win them will live up to their commitment to serve our...

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Posted February 16, 2021 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

The conclusion of the RDOF auction was met with a good deal of drama and uncertainty, leaving many of us working after the fact to understand the policy and practical impacts of its outcomes.

This week on the podcast Christopher talks with Jonathan Chambers, a partner at Conexon, a network solutions provider for electric cooperatives around the United States who helped organize a consortium of nearly 100 cooperatives to successfully bid for more than $1 billion in funding from the recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction administered by the FCC. 

Christopher and Jonathan unpack the design and implementation of RDOF not only in the context of the current broadband landscape, but the history of FCC auctions and federal infrastructure subsidy policy. They discuss how the funding will support upcoming projects which will bring fiber networks — many of them owned and operated by electric cooperatives — to hundreds of thousands of Americans over the next decade. 

But they also talk about the multitude of winning bids that went for a worryingly low percentage of what it will actually cost to build those networks across the country. Jonathan and Christopher discuss why we saw that happen, but also what kind of guardrails we don’t but should have in place to make sure that public money for broadband infrastructure doesn’t go to waste and, equally importantly, so that households in those areas don’t go another decade without a quality Internet connection. 

This show is 53 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-...

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Posted February 3, 2021 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

Where broadband is and isn't available has always been a crucial part of the puzzle for bringing the fastest, more affordable Internet access to everyone in the country. Maps play a particularly important role in this endeavor, and a podcast episode from the Broadband Bunch with Pennsylvania State University's Sascha Meinrath, founder of X-Lab, unpacks how. In the episode, Meinrath discusses how the U.S. went from being a leader in broadband mapping in 2005 to one lagging behind the bulk of the pack today.

Along with the host, he talks about the failure of the FCC to do a central part of its job over the last fifteen years, the current lack of oversight, verification, and punishment for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that misreport their coverage, how we got to a point where bad FCC data has become a proxy for the reality on the ground with significant impact for funding dollars, and what that means for students, seniors, and rural economies all around the country.

Listen to hear more.

Posted April 8, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Last fall, we reported on the large number of community-owned broadband networks among the applicants for the first round of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ReConnect broadband program, which awards grants and loans to expand rural connectivity.

Since then, the USDA has distributed more than $620 million to 70 providers in 31 states as part of ReConnect round one. Just over half of the awardees are community networks, including rural cooperatives, local governments, community agencies, and a tribal provider. The other ReConnect awardees are locally owned providers. Almost all grant and loan recipients plan to build high-quality fiber networks with the funds.

While the impact will be limited by the relatively modest size of the program and restrictive eligibility requirements, the ReConnect awards will nevertheless lead to improved economic opportunity and quality of life in rural areas. These investments will enable more rural Americans to take advantage of precision agriculture, online education, and telehealth visits — services that are now more important than ever as the nation finds itself in the grips of a pandemic.

Co-ops, Munis Win Big

Approximately 30 rural telephone and electric cooperatives in 16 different states are taking home ReConnect grants and loans from the first round of funding. Co-op awards include a nearly $19 million grant for Alaska-based Cordova Telecom Cooperative, a $28 million grant and loan for Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, and a $2.73 million grant for Emery Telecom for projects in Colorado and Montana.

USDA logo

Several municipal networks are also recipients of ReConnect funding. One of the awardees, Osage Municipal Utilities in Iowa,...

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Posted March 12, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

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.

ReConnect’s Disconnect

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...

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Posted March 9, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

In two letters sent at the end of February, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to reconsider certain aspects of the agency’s ReConnect broadband grant and loan program. The senators’ letters, addressed to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, called on the agency to address, “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.”

The USDA, which is currently accepting applications for the second round of ReConnect funding, has awarded more than $600 million in grants and loans since launching the program in 2019.

“A High-stakes Gamble”

Merkley and Wyden’s first letter [pdf], joined by Oregon Representatives Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio, and Kurt Schrader, raised lingering problems with the USDA’s determination of eligible areas and the application process for the program.

The letter reads:

We heard several concerns from our constituents in Oregon that the initial design of the ReConnect Program limited accessibility for local Internet service providers (ISPs) due to both administrative issues and eligibility restrictions. While changes have been made to improve the program, we continue to hear from many Oregonians that several major issues unfortunately remain.

In particular, the Oregon officials identified as barriers the complicated and costly application process as well as an inaccurate and unclear designation of underserved areas. “Many local ISPs feel as if [applying] is more akin to a high-stakes gamble rather than soliciting funding for a fiber-to-the-premises project,” they explained.

Additionally, the lawmakers noted that the ReConnect program’s scoring criteria can prioritize less rural, non-tribal areas, writing, “If this grant focuses on bringing broadband to rural and unserved America, the evaluation criteria seem to contradict the program’s mission.”

Satellite Subsidies Limit Opportunity...

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Posted March 3, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

In 1999, Yakutat became home to one of Alaska’s first surf shops. Now, two decades later, the coastal community of 600 people is looking at another first for the community — high-speed Internet access.

Cordova Telecom Cooperative (CTC) will be expanding its broadband network to Yakutat from the co-op’s headquarters 220 miles away in Cordova, Alaska. Already, CTC offers wireline and mobile connectivity in and around Cordova. The new project, codenamed NICEY or New Internet Communications for Everyone in Yakutat, will bring high-quality Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access to the village, which has a large Native Alaskan population.

NICEY will be financed in large part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ReConnect grant of nearly $19 million awarded to CTC in December. This money will help fund not only the deployment of the fiber network in Yakutat but also the construction of several remote wireless towers to connect the village to the broader Internet. “I don’t know how many grants of this size local groups have gotten,” CTC general manager and CEO Jeremiah Beckett told the Cordova Times. “It’s pretty big for Cordova.”

Neighbors Partner for Grant

Locals and visitors alike can only reach Yakutat by air or sea — there are no roads to the southeastern Alaskan community. The Internet is similarly hard to access for village residents.

Yakutat’s poor connectivity forces the school to limit student access to online materials and courses; businesses sometimes struggle to run card transactions. Households’ only available option for Internet access is satellite, typically hampered by low speeds, frequent service interruptions, and restrictive data caps.

CTC was a natural partner to tackle Yakutat’s limited connectivity. The telephone cooperative has already invested in fiber and wireless networks in the region and was on the lookout for ways to improve backbone connectivity. Cordova and Yakutat also share a long history and are...

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Posted March 2, 2020 by Lisa Gonzalez

Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC), has been working on their plan to deploy Fiber-to-the Home (FTTH) to members and surrounding premises since 2017. The rural cooperative received a financial boost when they recently received a grant and loan award from the USDA's ReConnect Program.

Welcome Funding for Fiber 

With $28 million - part loan and part grant - CVEC plans to fund the first three years of their project. The USDA funding will allow CVEC to connect more than 17,000 households, six health care centers, 15 educational facilities, and 15 other community facilities. When the entire five-year plan is complete, approximately 37,000 premises will have access to FTTH. 

In Buckingham County, CVEC officials announced the award to about 200 people, including local resident Virginia Jackson. She and her family rely on their mobile phones' hotspots for Internet access, which is unreliable and can be expensive. She and her husband were interested in the project and how it would improve connectivity for them and left "excited to see what the project brings to our community."

Early in the planning process, CVEC sought funding from local governments where they plan to deploy infrastructure. They did obtain support, but still sought grants and loans elsewhere to help pay for construction of the project, which they estimated to cost between $110 and $120 million. CVEC has received grants from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), FCC Connect American Fund, Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC), and a loan from the Rural Utility Service (RUS) for smart grid upgrades. 

The project will include deploying approximately 4,000 miles of fiber optic infrastructure and will touch 14 counties. The co-op will deploy in a range of competitive environments. In some areas, locals have only dial-up, whereas in other communities CenturyLink and Comcast already serve subscribers. Even in places where residents already have one or two options, the ability to connect with fiber...

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Posted February 28, 2020 by Sushmita Shrestha

There is a festive air in Arrowsic, Maine, after Governor Janet Mills announced on January 30th that the community will develop a publicly owned broadband network for fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. The community will receive $1.2 million in combined grant and loan funding from the USDA's ReConnect Pilot Program to connect 237 households, 20 businesses, and four farms with symmetrical fiber optic service of up to 100 Mbps.

This will be a substantial upgrade because Arrowsic currently contends with patchy DSL connections that top out at 10 Mbps download through Consolidated, with upload speeds much slower. Poor connectivity has been affecting the economy at the local level because it's a strike against Arrowsic when people are looking to relocate to the region. Community leaders approached incumbent providers, including Consolidated and Spectrum, but the national companies rejected requests to serve the rural community with a small population of only around 450. Rather than settle for antiquated, poor serve, Arrowsic decided to pursue a community broadband network.

Multi-Community Effort

The 3 Bridged Islands Broadband Initiative (3BIB) is a nonprofit created by the towns of Arrowsic, Georgetown, and Southport. The organization first initiated a feasibility study, explored funding opportunities, and submitted the application for USDA grant to develop the network in Arrowsic. They've worked with Axiom to develop the design for the infrastructure and, according to the 3BIB website, intend work with private sector partners to offer services via the fiber optic infrastructure.

After the approval of USDA grant, the town of Arrowsic is now determined to close the digital divide and expects to do more to boost the local economy. The town is also looking forward to providing telehealth services to older people with chronic illness, increasing students’ ability to do research and complete assignments through better Internet connections. 

D.J. LaVoy, the USDA rural development deputy undersecretary said in his announcement on January 30th

This substantial investment in broadband in Maine will help ensure that these rural, coastal, and island communities can connect to the vital Internet services that...

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