IIJA Connectivity

Aug. 12, 2022
Broadband for the masses

In our modern world, connectivity is an integral part of day-to-day life. Through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), more people are expected to be connected through programs that aim to connect communities that are blocked off from accessing broadband, and in part, the rest of the world. The IIJA is funding multiple projects to offer connectivity to every American, but one in particular stands out: the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Broadband Program. This program is ensuring that Americans who live in rural areas will get the same access to the internet that people in urban areas have.

What is the USDA Broadband Program?

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the IIJA will provide $2 billion for rural broadband programs. This program will fund the deployment of high-speed internet in areas where households have, historically, had lower access to broadband compared with households in more urban areas.

Across the country, there is lack of access to broadband in multiple areas; however, according to a report by the CRS, throughout the south, in areas like the Mississippi River basin, and certain counties in the Midwest and West, the lack of broadband access is very high compared to other developed areas.

What are the Funds?

The IIJA will provide $2 billion for USDA broadband programs, which will remain available until expended. The funds include:

  • ReConnect Program Grants and Loans: The $1.926 billion in funds for this program will help construct and improve facilities required to provide broadband access to rural areas.
  • Rural Broadband Program Loans: The $74 million in funds for this program will help construct and improve facilities required to provide broadband access to rural areas.

The IIJA allows up to 4% of the funding from both programs to be used for administrative costs and up to 3% of funding to be used for technical assistance to applicants. Approximately $5 million of the technical assistance will be directed to support cooperatives to offer broadband service. The bill also directs the USDA to collaborate with the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in awarding funding for broadband projects.

ReConnect Project Requirements

The IIJA wants the USDA to administer the ReConnect Program funds based on projects that follow certain criteria. This does not include the Rural Broadband Program. The list of requirements for the ReConnect Program funding is as follows:

  • Service Area Requirements: the IIJA defines eligible service areas as rural areas where at least 50% of households do not have sufficient broadband access—25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps).
  • Set-Aside for High-Need Rural Areas: the IIJA requires that 10% of the funding be set aside for service areas where at least 90% of households do not have sufficient broadband access (25/3 Mbps).
  • Broadband Buildout Speed: The IIJA requires projects to provide broadband service to premises within the proposed service area at minimum speeds of 100/20 Mpbs.
  • Rural in Character Exception: The IIJA allows the USDA to allocate up to $50 million to projects in areas that do not meet the “rural area” definition, but are determined to be “rural in character”, meaning communities that may not meet the definition of a rural area may be eligible for certain funding if they have qualities that are rural in character, such as fewer inhabitants, and no adjacent to a city with a population greater than 50,000.
  • Match Waived for Certain Communities: The IIJA waives the matching funds requirement for grant applicants that are for Alaska Native Corporations or federally recognized Native American tribes on undeserved trust lands, or for grant projects that serve persistent poverty counties (counties that have had a poverty rate of 20% or higher for the past 30 years or more).

Breaking down the barrier of internet access in areas that are in an information superhighway drought will pave the way for more jobs, more learnings, and a greater connectivity to not only the community they’re in, but America as a whole. If you’re interested in more information from the IIJA, stay tuned next week for our next installment in our ongoing series of the IIJA, and catch up on our previous IIJA columns here.


Source: CRS

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