Wittman: USDA Making $48 Million Investment in Broadband for Rural Virginia
WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Business-Cooperative Service Administrator Bette Brand announced USDA has invested $48 million in high speed broadband infrastructure for more than 22,600 rural households in Virginia – including King and Queen County. This is one of many funding announcements in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.
“I am thrilled to see this important investment coming to the First District. For me, the issue of rural broadband dates back more than 20 years to my time on Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors,” said Wittman. “Demand for high speed broadband has never been greater; closing the digital divide is the key to lifting up countless communities and populations in unserved areas. While Congress has made great strides in tackling this issue, more can and should be done. If we are going to get broadband systems built out as quickly as possible, it means we must leverage private dollars as well as public dollars – at the local, state, and federal level.”
In June, Congressman Wittman held the third meeting of his First District Broadband Task Force in Tappahannock. USDA Acting Assistant to the Secretary for USDA’s Rural Development, Joel Baxley, attended the meeting to speak and meet with localities. Mr. Baxley, as the head of the office of Rural Development, oversees the operations of the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) under the direction of Chad Rupe, Acting Administrator of the RUS. The RUS is responsible for executing telecommunications programs, within USDA, including the newly created USDA ReConnect broadband grant and loan program.
Currently almost 50% of rural Virginians either lack access to high speed internet or 29% don’t have any internet service at all. At this meeting, the Task Force discussed the unique challenges that are present in the region which hinder access to high speed broadband services. This includes the labyrinth of red tape and regulations, cost of service, and varying geographic obstacles. Congressman Wittman believes that by addressing these issues and engaging federal agencies and other private stakeholders with localities, we can help bridge the digital divide.
As a co-chair of the House Rural Broadband Caucus, Rep. Wittman continues to be a leader on promoting access to broadband in rural areas. He has sent letters to both President Trump and Democratic leadership advocating for rural broadband expansion in future infrastructure projects. He, along with several colleagues, introduced the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2019, which requires broadband providers to report service availability based on geometric location rather than traditional census blocks, to create an improved National Broadband Map that is significantly more accurate, so that federal broadband funds can be better directed to areas that need it the most.
In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks.
These grants, loans and combination funds enable the federal government to partner with the private sector and rural communities to build modern broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service. Insufficient service is defined as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.
In December 2019, Agriculture Secretary Perdue announced USDA will be making available an additional $550 million in ReConnect funding in 2020. USDA will make available up to $200 million for grants, up to $200 million for 50/50 grant/loan combinations, and up to $200 million for low-interest loans. The application window for this round of funding will open Jan. 31, 2020. Applications for all funding products will be accepted in the same application window, which will close no later than March 16, 2020.