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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.

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

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Posted April 3, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Like most other aspects of life, the ongoing pandemic has disrupted the federal government’s plans to disburse grants, loans, and subsidies for the construction of rural broadband networks. But unlike the sporting events and concerts that can be put on an indefinite hold, these funds are now needed more than ever by the Internet access providers trying to connect rural households during a time when everything has moved online. Federal agencies, like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), must find ways to manage the challenges caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus and to leverage their funds to support essential networks for families stuck at home.

These agencies’ main rural broadband programs — the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and USDA’s ReConnect — are at different stages, both in their funding cycles and in their response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic has already led to changes at the USDA, which has extended the ReConnect application deadline and is set to receive additional funds from Congress. Meanwhile, the FCC has yet to alter the upcoming RDOF subsidy auction, but it could speed up the process to address the current crisis, which threatens to linger through the summer.

While more must be done to address the many digital divides exacerbated by the pandemic, federal agencies should at least use existing programs to their full advantage to connect rural Americans during this unprecedented time.

ReConnect Extends and Expands

USDA logo

USDA launched the ReConnect broadband program last year to award more than $1 billion in grants and loans to connect unserved and underserved rural areas. In round one of the program, the agency distributed more than $600 million to 70 providers across 31 states. Many of these awards went to community-owned networks, including rural cooperatives and local...

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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 2, 2020 by lgonzalez

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 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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Posted January 22, 2020 by lgonzalez

Iowa has multiple rural communities where large national Internet access companies have not invested in high-quality Internet infrastructure. Iowans have adopted a self-reliant approach, however, and one look at the community networks map shows that publicly owned networks pepper the state. Osage, in the north-central part of Iowa, has offered Internet access to the community since 2001. In a recent announcement from the U.S.D.A, we learned that Osage Municipal Utilities (OMU) will receive almost $400,000 to continue their efforts to connect more premises in rural Mitchell County and connect people with fiber Internet access.

According to the announcement:

Osage Municipal Utilities (OMU) in northern Iowa will use a $397,749 ReConnect Program grant to provide broadband service to underserved households, farms and businesses in Mitchell County. This will be accomplished by directly accessing a fiber trunk line that runs through the heart of Mitchell, Iowa, and up to the border of Minnesota, allowing OMU to increase its service area bandwidth. The funded service area includes 151 households spread over 20 square miles.

We wrote about Osage's broadband and solar projects and interviewed OSU General Manager Josh Byrnes back in 2016. Listen to the interview here:

Posted November 18, 2019 by Sayidali Moalim

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.

Orangeburg County

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...

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Posted November 8, 2019 by lgonzalez

As we reported back in September, the bulk of applicants to the USDA's ReConnect Loan and Grant Program came from publicly owned projects. Cooperatives, local governments, and tribal government projects comprised more than half of the applications. Awards are now being announced and one of the largest awards so far is going to a North Carolina cooperative to provide fast, affordable, reliable connectivity in southeast North Carolina.

ReConnecting Star

Star Telephone Membership Corporation will be awarded a grant of almost $24 million to develop Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service to more than 8,700 households, 10 educational facilities, around 20 businesses, and three community facilities within a 739 square mile area. Subscribers will be able to sign-up for speeds that begin at 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download.

At a November 6th event at Star Distribution Center in Clinton: 

Jeff Shipp, vice president of operations for Star Communications, said projects will take place in the Herring exchange in the northern region of Sampson County, which also loops around the middle portion of Sampson County. The second is the Six Runs area part of county towards Turkey and the third is Harrells, in the southern region. Other projects are scheduled for Bladen County as well.

“We’re very excited about this,” Shipp said. “We’re excited for our members and for our community. We have the lowest density in the entire state in our area, roughly around 3.8 subscribers per mile. We would have to budget $25,000 per mile to put fiber in the ground. That’s why a grant such as this from USDA is so important. We’re also fortunate enough to receive additional funding from the state this year for an area in Bladen County to assist with fiber as well.”

Star Telephone Membership Corporation

The cooperative was created when two smaller co-ops merged in 1959. Since then, the entity has been serving the rural areas in and around Clinton, North Carolina, and has been one of the early adopters of FTTH for members, many who are farmers.

“This is really a big, big day in Sampson County,”...

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Posted September 4, 2019 by Katie Kienbaum

Applicants in the first round of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ReConnect Loan and Grant Program requested over $1.4 billion to finance rural broadband expansion, exceeding available funds by more than $800 million. Despite tough competition, much of the funding may go to community broadband networks, since more than half of the applicants are publicly or collectively owned, including electric and telephone cooperatives, local governments, and federally recognized tribes.

As was the case in previous federal programs, most community broadband providers applying for ReConnect funds plan to deploy modern, high-speed fiber networks. Unlike the large telecom monopolies, which are letting their rural networks rot even while raking in government subsidies, community owned networks frequently leverage federal funds to deploy future-proof fiber optics in their rural service areas.

ReConnect Review

In 2018, Congress authorized $600 million for the ReConnect program to expand high-quality connectivity in rural America by providing grants and loans to Internet access providers. The first round of ReConnect applications closed earlier this summer with $200 million available in each of the three funding categories:

  • 100 percent grant
  • 50 percent grant - 50 percent loan
  • 100 percent loan

Earlier this year, Congress approved an additional $550 million for the program, which the USDA will distribute after awarding round one funds.

logo-reconnect-eligible.png Most entities were eligible to apply for ReConnect funds, including for-profit companies, rural cooperatives, local governments, and tribes. The guidelines for which communities qualified, however, were much more restrictive. Proposed service areas had to be rural, as defined by the USDA, and had to have between 90 and 100 percent of the...

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