USDA sends $502 million to rural, Native communities to improve broadband

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The funds come from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law that President Joe Biden signed last year.

President Joe Biden's administration has authorized $502 million in loans and grants to improve internet access in rural communities across 20 states, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday.

This is the third round of funding for the department's ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, which "offers federal loans, grants, and combinations thereof to facilitate broadband deployment in rural areas." In July, the Biden administration sent $400 million to assist 31,000 residents and businesses in 11 states.

The funds come from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law that Biden signed last year. The infrastructure law invests a total of $65 billion in building and improving broadband networks. The spending package passed Congress with mostly Democratic votes, while most Republicans opposed it.

"High-speed internet will improve the rural economy. It will help rural businesses grow and get access to new markets. It will help rural residents get access to more and better health care and educational opportunities," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. "USDA knows rural America is America's backbone, and prosperity here means prosperity for all."

The department noted that much of the federal funds will go toward connecting tribal lands and other socially vulnerable communities.

In Michigan, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians received a $24.9 million grant to expand broadband internet access on reservation lands in Chippewa County and Mackinac County. The tribe's leadership said the grant would allow them to install a fiber-to-the-premises network that would provide 1-gigabit high-speed internet to residents.

"Bringing affordable and reliable broadband service to our region is central to connecting our membership to medical specialists, job opportunities, and remote learning courses," Sault Tribe Vice Chairman Austin Lowes said in a release.

Seven counties in Oklahoma will receive $31 million through the program, serving residents of the Choctaw Nation, Osage Nation, as well as the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache-Fort Sill Apache Tribal Statistical Area.

A 2018 Pew poll found that 58% of rural residents said that high-speed internet access was a problem in their area. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this issue, particularly on tribal lands, where many were unable to find work, attend school or get the medical care they needed without a reliable internet connection.

Many rural businesses have said reliable broadband is a resource they need to attract and retain workers.

The Biden administration has simultaneously enacted programs to reduce the cost of broadband, reaching agreements with providers to cap costs for qualified families and in some instances completely covering the cost of services.

The administration has also focused on assisting Native American communities with broadband.

"Our administration's vision is to connect all Native communities with the Internet and with the opportunity that comes along with access to affordable Internet — the opportunity to live healthier, happier, and more prosperous lives. And we will continue to fight every day to make that vision a reality," Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters on Aug. 11.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.