The budget deal that Congress and the Trump administration reached Feb. 15 to avert a second government shutdown includes $550 million to help electric co-ops continue to expand broadband service into sparsely populated rural areas in 2019.

A summary of the legislation by the House Appropriations Committee notes that the bill "rejects the President's proposed elimination of the program" in his 2019 budget request. President Trump signed the sweeping government funding bill after a battle with lawmakers over his request for $5.7 billion to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

There is bipartisan support in Congress for the ReConnect program, which provides grants and loans that co-ops, states, local governments and others can use to build broadband. The program is designed to help areas where 90 percent to 100 percent of households lack high-speed internet service.

The program was created in 2018, receiving $600 million from Congress. Combined with the money in the recent budget deal, that's a total of more than $1.1 billion over two years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released rules in mid-December for how co-ops can apply for the 2018 money, which was approved by Congress last March.

Applications for grants and loans were originally supposed to be due beginning in April, but the USDA announced on Feb. 6 that the application deadlines would be pushed back to May 31 or later to give co-ops and others more time to get technical help from the department. The exact deadlines for each type of application will be announced soon by the USDA.

"We've seen such strong interest in ReConnect from rural telecommunications providers and utility cooperatives, that we want to be sure there's enough time for them to put solid applications together for these innovative funding opportunities," said Bette Brand, the department's administrator for rural business service.

More information about the application process can be found on USDA's website.

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