The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is still processing applications for its third round of ReConnect Program funding, but that’s not stopping the agency from setting the stage for round four. Officials on Thursday announced an application window for a fresh round of funding will be open from September 6 to November 2, 2022.
On a call with journalists, USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Xochitl Torres Small said round four will divvy up a total of $1.15 billion for rural broadband. This will include up to $150 million for loans, $300 million for loan-grant combinations and $700 million in grants. Eligible entities will include state, local and territory governments, as well as native American tribes, corporations and cooperatives. The loans will be processed on a rolling basis, while the grants and combination awards will be scored before awards are made.
Money for the fourth round was supplied by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which allocated $2 billion in funding to the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). The RUS oversees the ReConnect Program.
Laurel Laverrier, assistant administrator for the RUS' telecommunications program, noted the agency has made a number of rule changes for its round four funding. First, she said it will now allow applicants to serve areas where at least 50% of households lack sufficient access to high speed internet. The agency has also added a special funding category for projects targeting areas where 90% of locations lack access to sufficient broadband. Applicants in this category will not be required to provide matching funds. Sufficient broadband is defined as providing speeds of 100 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream.
The matching funds requirement is also being waived for Alaska native corporations; Tribal governments; and projects proposing to provide service in colonias, persistent poverty counties or socially vulnerable communities. The final rule change will require all funding recipients to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program.
According to Torres Small, the USDA plans to use its existing Service Area Map alongside a challenge process and ground testing to get an accurate picture of where coverage does and does not exist on a “home-by-home basis” before awards are made. She added the agency plans to work closely with federal government peers, state, local and tribal governments to ensure funding is going where it’s needed given the influx of funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.
“That takes coordination at all levels and it really takes attention to details. So, everything from weekly meetings at the White House to someone who’s writing a regulation being able to pick up the phone and call FCC or call NTIA to make sure that it fits well with what’s happening,” she said. “And you’ll see that.”
Late last week, the USDA announced the first $401 million in awards for its third round of ReConnect funding. All told, it is set to hand out $1.15 billion as part of round three. Torres Small said it is still processing round three applications and expects to make additional awards on a rolling basis throughout the month of August.