The U.S. Department of Agriculture will offer more than $1 billion for rural broadband through its ReConnect program, which is now geared to help more communities on electric cooperative lines thanks to program improvements advocated by NRECA.

“Significant changes to this new round of the ReConnect program will allow electric cooperatives and other broadband providers to offer service to many more unserved and underserved rural communities,” NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said after the administration’s Oct. 22 announcement of new program funding. 

“We greatly appreciate USDA’s work to help spur rural broadband deployment and their appropriate recognition of the need to make sure the program continues to serve those communities most in need of broadband,” Matheson said. 

USDA will begin accepting ReConnect applications Nov. 24 for up to $1.15 billion in loans and grants for broadband deployment in rural communities nationwide. 

Now in its third year of funding, ReConnect is better equipped to deliver reliable high speed internet access to unserved areas after adopting several key changes recommended by NRECA. Those include defining an area as “served” only if it has access to broadband with data speeds of at least 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads. This is significantly faster service than what previously qualified for funds and will help ensure that rural communities are not left behind with inferior internet service. 

Other program enhancements that will boost broadband for rural areas include: 

• Prioritizing applications from not-for-profit cooperatives, tribes, nonprofits and local government entities.

• Prioritizing applications to areas that lack at least 25/3 Mbps.

• Requiring funded networks to be capable of delivering symmetrical speeds of 100/100 Mbps.

• Allowing areas that previously received federal broadband funding to be eligible if they still lack 100/20 Mbps service.

The ReConnect program offers loans, grants and 50/50 loan-grant awards. It began in 2018 with $600 million from Congress for disbursal in 2019. Congress later provided another $550 million, but no additional funds were allocated to the program in 2020.