More than one-quarter of rural Americans face structural roadblocks to overcoming economic and health-related inequalities. The high-speed broadband gap is one such barrier that, if addressed, has the potential to transform lives and redefine the playbook for rural economic growth.
In recent months, unemployment in some Eastern Kentucky counties has reached up to 15.2%, including areas where the coal industry’s collapse hit hardest. When these households can’t get reliable internet, underemployed and unemployed residents are faced with fewer options for their career transitions.
And diagnosis rates of diabetes, lung cancer, and obesity among Eastern Kentucky residents far outpace the national average. Yet telehealth services can be difficult, if not impossible, to access at home, further perpetuating these disparities.
USDA ReConnect: Addressing the high-speed broadband gap in rural communities
Since 2019, the USDA ReConnect Loan and Grant Program has invested over $2.3 billion in broadband connectivity projects to take aim at the rural coverage gap.
Between 2020 and 2022, the USDA funded 6 unique projects throughout Eastern Kentucky, including Powell, Breathitt, Clay, Lee, and Rockcastle counties. These community efforts are bringing high-speed internet into homes, businesses, and community facilities such as police departments, medical facilities, libraries, schools, and farms.
ReConnect is helping more Eastern Kentuckians pursue remote jobs and critical health services. Such access is expected to result in major downstream improvements to quality of life outcomes and economic opportunities for all residents.
Local ISPs and electric cooperative partnerships are leading many of these projects because they’re well-positioned to bring the best possible service to their communities and end users.
The ReConnect program recently opened its largest funding round to date: a total of $1.15 billion is available to awardees via grants, loans, and grant-loan combinations. Those intending to apply should note: the USDA has updated one key focus area of the program to control costs and support long-term project sustainability.
What’s new in ReConnect round 4
Up-front project funding has been a historic challenge to the electric cooperative model for broadband implementation — a problem that becomes addressable with the USDA’s financial backing.
But a recent study highlighted the financial benefits of leveraging existing infrastructure for broadband deployment. Electric cooperatives can accelerate high-speed fiber implementation within their current grids or as part of smart-grid modernization projects — often at lower costs than other implementation methods.
If every rural broadband project followed this approach, the nationwide cost of bringing high-speed internet to every US household would likely decrease by $8 to $15 billion. Since the USDA is issuing grants on a scale of billions of dollars, achieving these cost efficiencies ought to help more communities get online sooner.
Locally-owned broadband infrastructure is considered an attractive model due to long-term project sustainability, profit-sharing benefits, and service quality outcomes. Electric cooperatives also have a proven commitment to serving all customers, regardless of location, which aligns with the requirements — and the spirit — of every ReConnect grant or loan.
As a result, the USDA is placing an enhanced focus on the electric cooperative model in this current funding round. Every electric cooperative will receive an additional 15 points on its application score.
ReConnect eligibility criteria
The minimum qualifications for ReConnect funding are:
- A rural proposed funded service area (PFSA).
- 50% of households without sufficient access (speeds under 100 Mbps/20 Mbps).
The network must provide broadband service to all premises in the PFSA and be completely contained within one or more rural areas.
Grants, loans, and grant-loan combinations have varying maximum funding amounts (between $25-$50 million). 100% grants must demonstrate a 25% cash match. Projects with 90% or more households lacking sufficient access don’t have to provide a match.
Estimate your location’s eligibility using the USDA’s new mapping tool. Consult the ReConnect program fact sheet for more details.
Preparing to apply for ReConnect funding
Eastern Kentucky is one of many regions seeking financial support for broadband expansion projects. You’ll need a standout application to increase your chances of winning these highly-competitive ReConnect funds for your community.
Follow these tips to build a strong foundation for your project and application materials — and show the USDA you’re ready to make the most of this opportunity.
Tip #1: Form a fiber board
Installing high-speed broadband in rural areas is a lengthy process, requiring close coordination with public and private partners, utility companies, and homeowners. It’s hard work — but doable with the right leadership team.
A fiber board increases your project’s chances of succeeding. Your fiber board will champion broadband installation from start to finish, bring skills to the table that enrich the effort, and keep morale high when roadblocks inevitably occur.
A fiber board can support:
- Public-private partnership formation, ideally with an electric cooperative.
- Creating and overseeing the project budget.
- Cultivating funding match sources.
- Facilitating community outreach and other key partnerships.
Follow these steps to assemble a fiber board for your community.
Tip #2: Enhance application materials with data
The strongest ReConnect applications will present a compelling case for why their community needs broadband funding.
Tell your community’s story using data, including some of the following points:
- The exact number of unserved or underserved households, businesses, and community facilities (this is a requirement).
- Speed tests (also a condition).
- Evidence of economic impacts, such as unemployment, underemployment, and remote work employment rates.
- Health outcomes data.
- Student testing scores.
Tip #3: Ensure you have your DUNS and SAM numbers
Put this at the top of your list: you must have a D&B DUNS number and a SAM number to submit any federal grant or loan application.
Verify that your organization has DUNS and SAM numbers. If you don’t, submit your applications ASAP — processing can take several weeks or even up to a few months.
The ReConnect application deadline is November 2, 2022
Rural communities without high-speed broadband are especially vulnerable to negative economic, health, and educational outcomes. Enabling access to telehealth services, remote work, and online education opportunities will make a tangible difference in the lives of thousands of Eastern Kentuckians.
As with any federal grant program, ReConnect awards will be extremely competitive. The USDA recently funded 6 Eastern Kentucky projects. We hope to see several more awards go to our hard-working community members in this round.
Access resources from SOAR to create your best possible application:
- Download the Getting Funded: The 2022 Manual for Writing & Winning Broadband Grants from CORI and SOAR.
Contact SOAR for more information on USDA ReConnect, best practices when seeking funding, and a complimentary review of your application materials.