Electric cooperatives pursuing broadband service for their members can apply for $600 million in loans and grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new program geared at connecting rural, low-density areas lacking high-speed internet access.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Dec. 13 released rules for the ReConnect Program, funded by Congress this year to help deliver broadband to unserved or underserved parts of the country with sparse populations.

"High-speed internet e-connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity," Perdue said. "We hope that today, rural communities kick off their rural broadband project planning."

NRECA strongly supports this program and applauded the department's effort to bridge the digital divide.

"This program at USDA and the strong broadband provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill highlight a much-needed shift in federal policy to make broadband a reality for the 23 million rural Americans lacking a reliable high-speed internet connection," said NRECA CEO Jim Matheson.

"NRECA strongly advocated this policy because broadband access at the right speed is absolutely essential for the growth of communities that today are suffering," he said.

USDA will award $600 million in three approaches: $200 million in grants, with applications due by April 29; $200 million for loan/grant combination awards, with applications due May 29; and $200 million for low-interest loans, with applications due by June 28.

The $200 million in spending authority Congress provided for loans will allow USDA to offer a much higher level of loans to invest in broadband. The department has not yet calculated the specific total loan level that the $200 million will support.

The ReConnect program includes the following key elements:

  • Eligible projects must serve communities of 20,000 or less that lack broadband service or have service slower than 10 megabits per second download and 1 mbps upload.

  • Projects must deliver service of at least 25/3 mbps.

  • Priority will be given to projects that propose to deliver higher than 25/3 mbps connections to rural homes, businesses and farms.

  • Proposals will be evaluated on connectivity delivered to health care facilities and schools in addition to services for agricultural production, marketing and e-commerce.

USDA will hold regional workshops and online webinars to assist applicants, and details will be forthcoming on the program's website.

"Secretary Perdue's announcement lays the groundwork for an improved approach to making broadband a reality across rural America," said Matheson. "We look forward to working with federal policymakers and other stakeholders as we build on these positive developments and make new strides to close that divide."

Read More:

Matheson: 'We Want the Consumer to Have Real Broadband

On the Front Lines of the Digital Divide: Co-ops Push for Better Broadband

5 Takeaways From NRECA's Study on the Value of Broadband for Consumer-Members

Listen to the Along Those Lines podcast episode on rural broadband: