USDA announces pilot program to increase internet access in rural areas

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday it is offering millions of dollars as part of a program to build broadband infrastructure in rural America.

The ReConnect Program will provide $600 million in loans and grants for telecommunications companies, electric cooperatives, internet service providers and municipalities for the purpose of serving communities in rural America.

Areas may qualify if they have a population of fewer than 20,000 residents and either no broadband service or service slower than 10 megabits per second download or 1 megabit per second upload.

“High-speed internet e-Connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope that today rural communities kick-off their rural broadband project planning,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a press release.

Approved projects would be required for creating access speeds of at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload.

Funding for the program comes from the omnibus appropriations bill approved in March.

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., applauded the announcement in separate statements.

“Strong broadband access for the Mountain State will be a game changer to not only our economy, but also our public safety, education, and connectivity to our friends and family,” Manchin said.

“Connectivity is essential for individuals, families, students, businesses, and communities to succeed. Without access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet, rural communities and rural states like West Virginia are being left behind when it comes to education, health care, job creation and retention, and overall economic potential,” Capito said.

Both senators have been active in trying to increase broadband access in West Virginia; Manchin is challenging the Federal Communication Commission’s map regarding broadband coverage in the state, while Capito’s Capito Connect initiative has set goals for increasing connectivity through collaboration between the public and private sectors.

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