For electric cooperatives weighing whether to enter the broadband business, or in the midst of developing an internet network, a new pot of financial assistance is available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

USDA recently opened the $20 million Broadband Technical Assistance Program geared to help small entities with logistical challenges in deploying high-speed internet. Grant applications are being accepted through June 20.

The program offers aid for broadband feasibility studies, network designs and applying for financial assistance. Co-ops and other qualifying agencies, including state and local governments or agencies and tribal entities and territories, may also use program funds for data collection and reporting and to help gain access to other federal resources.

“USDA is partnering with small towns, local utilities and cooperatives and private companies to increase access to this critical service, which in turn boosts opportunity and helps build bright futures,” Xochitl Torres Small, the department’s undersecretary for rural development, said in unveiling the new program.

The department said program applicants should consider broadband projects that support three priorities for rural communities: economic recovery through improved market opportunities and infrastructure, fair access to USDA Rural Development programs and benefits, and greater resilience to climate change.

Program applicants must choose one of three funding categories:

• Projects supporting broadband by cooperatives: $5 million available with awards from $50,000 to $1 million.

• Technical assistance providers for rural communities: $7.5 million with awards from $50,000 to $1 million.

• Recipients of broadband technical assistance: $7.5 million with awards from $50,000 to $250,000.

NRECA is encouraging electric co-ops in any phase of broadband service to consider this new funding opportunity, said Brian O’Hara, the association’s senior regulatory director.

“This program from USDA offers rare assistance to co-ops in the planning stages of broadband as well as help to co-ops that are in the midst of designing networks to benefit the rural communities they serve,” he said. “Electric co-ops may want to explore this opportunity further to ensure their members get the affordable, reliable connectivity they deserve.”

The new program derives from the $65 billion included in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law for expanding broadband internet access and will work with other broadband initiatives created under the Biden administration to meet its goal of affordable, reliable, high-speed internet connectivity for every American, the department said.

“USDA is committed to making sure that people, no matter where they live, have access to high-speed internet,” Small said. “That’s how you grow the economy, not just in rural communities but across the nation.”