ReConnect Program to Aid Rural Oklahomans in Accessing High-Speed InternetFri, 16 Sep 2022 08:00:08 CDT
Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that USDA is now accepting applications for ReConnect Program loans and grants to expand access to high-speed internet for millions of people in rural America nationwide. The Department is making more than $1 billion available, thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The program is a critical piece of the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to connect every American to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet.
KC Sheperd, Farm Director, visited with Brian Whitacre, professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, talking about the process of proving rural Oklahomans with high-speed internet as it relates to the ReConnect Program.
“Reconnect is focused on bringing broadband to rural areas,” Whitacre said. “This is a program that got rolled out around 2019 and so this is like the fourth round of funding they are making available.”
Usually, Whitacre said the people or the companies that apply for this program are your basic internet providers, cable companies, wireless internet providers, or rural electric cooperatives.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that USDA is now accepting applications for ReConnect Program loans and grants to expand access to high-speed internet for millions of people in rural America nationwide. The Department is making more than $1 billion available, thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The program is a critical piece of the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to connect every American to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet.
Applicants will fill out a packet that will be scored by the USDA to equate how much it will cost to service the location.
“USDA has the job of scoring these, and again, they have got a lot of money available, I think they are making up to 700 million dollars available nationally,” Whitacre said. “We have had pretty good success with these in Oklahoma in the past.”
The application deadline, Whitacre said, is November 2.
“We probably won’t hear anything for at least a couple of months after that, and then it will take a couple of years to get these things rolled out,” Whitacre said. “For this next round of ReConnect, what they are saying is they will now allow applicants to say they are going to serve areas where at least 50 percent of the households lack any kind of access. So, the other 50 percent could have some kind of broadband, which is classified at 25 megabits download, and 3 megabits upload. So, if you have a 10-megabit connection, you are counted as not having anything.”
The ReConnect Program also now has a special funding category, Whitacre said, for areas where 90 percent of households are undeserved.
“So, you are in a location where almost nobody has access to that 23-3 threshold, you are in your own category and you can hopefully get significant funding that way,” Whitacre said.
Whitacre said the goal to have all of Oklahoma under broadband is still on track, but it has been a slower process than anticipated.
“Oklahoma is kind of behind the curve in terms of getting a state broadband office up and running,” Whitacre said. “Several of our neighbors have had state broadband offices up and running for 5 to 10 years. Texas just got theirs up and running this year, and we are still in the process of searching for an executive director. We have got the announcement out there; we have got some pretty good candidates- we just have to hire that person and then kind of allow them to fill out the rest of the office with as many people as they see fit with the budget.”
The reconnect program’s money is funded through USDA, Whitacre said, at the federal level.
“USDA, nationally, kind of figures out where they want to spend this money,” Whitacre said. “The infrastructure act has another, probably billion dollars that they are going to allocate to Oklahoma and then we get to decide where that money is going to go.”
For those interested in applying, Whitacre said there are websites that offer “speed tests” to demonstrate how bad your connectivity may be.
“If you just look up ‘rural internet speed test,’ there are a couple of organizations that are doing that and making it kind of a crowdsource of data for people to say, ‘hey yes look it really is bad over there,’” Whitacre said. “I would also go say talk to your local county extension educator or local extension office, talk to your county officials, and your county commissioners. They are the ones who are going to be hopefully pushing companies in their area to apply for both reconnect and these larger broadband funds from the infrastructure act when that becomes available.”
Click the LISTEN BAR below to hear more from KC Sheperd and Brian Whitacre talking about the ReConnect Program as it relates to rural Oklahoma.
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