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USDA wants to “reconnect” rural America through broadband expansion

The ReConnect program offers $1.15 billion in loans and grants to fund the expansion process including on tribal lands.
Published: Nov. 9, 2021 at 9:48 AM CST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - If you live in a rural area, you’re well aware the digital divide can be as long as the miles you live from your nearest city.

The struggle to connect online is something Jason Eyre of Utah is familiar with.

“What we found is this technology has gone from something that these very skilled engineers have to develop to a technology that’s a little more advanced than WiFi,” said Eyre, the technology department coordinator for the Murray City school district in Murray, Utah.

Under his leadership, the district became the first in the nation to launch its own LTE network for its students this year.

“Then the pandemic comes and the pandemic all of a sudden takes learning and completely flips it,” he said.

The struggle to connect online that Eyre witnessed his students experience is what the Department of Agriculture is trying to solve for remote areas. To help with rural broadband expansion, the department launched the ReConnect Program.

The USDA’s Under Secretary for Rural Development, Xochitl Torres Small, is helping to spearhead the efforts. She said the initiative provides $1.15 billion in loans and grants to fund the expansion process including on tribal lands.

“A lot of folks are trying to connect this last mile, and rural development is crucial in that work because we already have connection to the people on the ground,” said Torres Small.

The department has already allocated $656 million in its first round, and $852 million in its second round. Now, the program is in in its third round of accepting applications.

Groups who may apply include corporations, LLCs, and Indian tribes.

The USDA will begin accepting online applications on November 24th until February 22nd.

Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois supports the ReConnect Program. As a member of the U.S Task Force on Rural Broadband, Bustos said only one in four people have access to high-speed internet in her district.

“Making sure that every home has access to high speed internet that leads to stronger local economies,” said Bustos. “That leads to more job creation.”

Bustos said the ReConnect Program continues to move forward President Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda by “prioritizing economic growth in rural America.”

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