For The Record

USDA announces another $759 million of grants and loans for rural internet

By: - October 27, 2022 3:43 pm

Rural broadband has been a top priority of Georgia’s state and federal officials. Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is awarding grants and loans that total about $759 million to 49 high-speed internet projects in 24 states and in other territories, the department announced Thursday.

The largest total award is a $36 million loan to Public Service Telephone Company for a fiber project in seven middle Georgia counties that would connect 21,289 people, 569 businesses, 323 farms and 29 educational facilities. The money is intended to install highspeed internet in Bibb, Crawford, Macon, Marion, Monroe, Talbot and Taylor counties.

Georgia lawmakers at the state and federal level have called for better internet connections for rural Georgians. State lawmakers have studied the disconnect extensively, but getting Georgia’s countryside wired has been slow going.

Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock helped introduce bipartisan legislation in September to increase the federal funding available for broadband expansion by preventing some grants from being considered taxable income. The Broadband Grant Tax Treatment Act would amend the Internal Revenue Code to ensure that money directed for the implementation of rural broadband from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the American Rescue Plan will not be considered taxable income and will make more of the funds available for much-needed broadband expansion in rural Georgia. 

“The pandemic forced many of us to live even more of our lives online. Hardworking Georgia families need reliable internet access for their jobs, education, health care and so much more,” Warnock said in a statement. “I’ve long championed efforts to strengthen broadband access, and I’m proud to be a part of this bipartisan coalition working to ensure rural regions in Georgia and across the nation have access to the resources they need to expand broadband.

The federal funding is part of the Agriculture department’s ReConnect Program and is partially funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The program seeks to boost broadband access — primarily in rural areas — to download speeds of 100 megabits per second.

“This really is critically important to the future of rural America,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said during a call with reporters. “Whether it’s distance-learning opportunities for our students, telemedicine for hospitals, doctors, market development for our small businesses or precision agriculture for our farmers, the internet — high-speed internet — is absolutely essential.”

About $668 million of the new funding is grants, with loans totaling about $91 million. It was the third such ReConnect announcement this year and is the largest so far. Another announcement is expected later this year and one in 2023, Vilsack said.

So far, the grant and loan awards have totaled about $1.6 billion.

The largest grants outside of Georgia announced Thursday were:

— Nearly $35 million for a southwest New Mexico fiber project.
— Nearly $35 million for northern Michigan.
— Nearly $35 million for a fiber network in the Republic of Palau.
— Nearly $30 million for Guam.
— More than $30 million for central Alaska.

Georgia Recorder Editor John McCosh contributed to this report.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Iowa Capital Dispatch Senior Reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government.