U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Moline) joined U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack Friday to announce the availability of $1.15 billion in loans and grants to expand broadband availability in rural areas through the ReConnect Program.
“In the district I serve, one in four families lack access to high-speed internet. This has a significant impact on our schools, health care facilities and small businesses across Northwest and Central Illinois,” Bustos said at Hammond-Henry Hospital in Geneseo. “It was an honor to join Secretary Vilsack today to announce that funding I voted for in FY 2021 appropriations is headed out the door to help connect our rural communities with much-needed broadband access.”
Friday’s announcement continues to move forward President Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda by prioritizing economic growth in rural America and investing in the backbone of our country – the middle class, according to the Congresswoman.
Beginning on Nov. 24, the USDA will begin accepting applications for up to $1.15 billion through the ReConnect program. Additional information on the ReConnect program can be found here.
“For too long, the ‘digital divide’ has left too many people living in rural communities behind: unable to compete in the global economy and unable to access the services and resources that all Americans need,” Vilsack said Friday. “As we build back better than we were before, the actions I am announcing today will go a long way toward ensuring that people who live or work in rural areas are able to tap into the benefits of broadband, including access to specialized health care, educational opportunities and the global marketplace.
“Rural people, businesses and communities must have affordable, reliable, high-speed internet so they can fully participate in modern society and the modern economy,” he said.
Secretary Vilsack spoke about USDA’s commitment to helping rural Americans get improved access to broadband and health care during a visit to the newly renovated emergency department at Hammond-Henry Hospital. The project was financed in part by a USDA loan.
To be eligible for ReConnect Program funding, an applicant must serve an area without broadband service at speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) (download) and 20 Mbps (upload), and commit to building facilities capable of providing broadband service at speeds of 100 Mbps (download and upload) to every location in its proposed service area.
In making funding decisions, USDA will prioritize projects that will serve low-density rural areas with locations lacking internet access services at speeds of at least 25 Mbps (download) and 3 Mbps (upload). In making funding decisions, the USDA will also consider, among other things, the economic needs of the community to be served; the extent which a provider will offer affordable service options; a project’s commitment to strong labor standards; and whether a project is serving tribal lands or is submitted by a local government, Tribal Government, non-profit or cooperative.
USDA has simplified the application process and has expanded the program significantly. For example, ReConnect will now offer 100 percent grants for certain projects on tribal lands and in socially vulnerable communities.
A leader in the effort to expand rural broadband access, Bustos is a Co-Chair of the New Democrat Coalition Rural Reinvestment Task Force and a member of the House Task Force on Rural Broadband.
Later Friday, Vilsack (former Governor of Iowa) and Bustos traveled to Rock Island for a briefing with the Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District and a tour of Lock & Dam 15, located on Arsenal Island. This visit underscored the importance of the nation’s inland waterways and Bustos saw first-hand the need for investment in rural infrastructure.
“Often, when people talk about infrastructure, they talk about roads and bridges. But our economy – and our family farmers – depend on other critical infrastructure, like our inland waterways,” Bustos said. “Investing in the upgrade and modernization of our inland waterways is necessary – and it’s just one reason we need to pass the bipartisan infrastructure package, which includes an additional $2.5 billion for the construction, rehabilitation and expansion of our inland waterways projects.”
To learn more about ReConnect Program eligibility, technical assistance and recent announcements, visit www.usda.gov/reconnect.