Electric cooperatives that want to deploy rural broadband will have a new tranche of federal funds to pursue when the U.S. Department of Agriculture reopens its ReConnect program next month with $1.5 billion.
The department will accept applications between Sept. 6 and Nov. 2 for up to $700 million in grants, $150 million in loans and $300 million in loan/grant combinations. The funds are part of the $65 billion designated for rural broadband in the infrastructure law passed last fall.
The new law made a few key changes to the ReConnect program, now in its fourth round. Most notably, to be eligible, areas must be 50% rural and without existing service at even the most basic data speed of 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload. The Federal Communications Commission recently proposed to redefine broadband as 100/20 Mbps, up from the current definition of 25/3 Mbps.
ReConnect awardees will be required to build to 100/100 Mbps symmetrical service and to participate in the FCC's Affordable Connectivity Program, which helps qualifying households obtain discounted broadband for work, school and health care.
USDA will also waive matching funds requirements for Alaska Native Corp., tribal governments and projects that serve persistent-poverty counties and socially vulnerable communities. Matching funds will also be waived for broadband projects where 90% of households lack sufficient access.
“NRECA is pleased to see USDA move so quickly to launch this next round of ReConnect with funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law," said Brian O'Hara, NRECA senior regulatory director for broadband and telecom.
USDA is still reviewing applications from the third funding round that closed back in March.