Federal Omnibus Carves Out Funding for Rural Connectivity

The recently signed federal spending package allocates $600 million for rural broadband investment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

by Matt Combs, The Register-Herald / March 27, 2018

(TNS) — In a move applauded by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, sandwiched into the $1.3 trillion Omnibus spending package signed into law by President Trump Friday is $600 million for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for rural broadband investment.

“It is unacceptable that millions of people in rural America currently lack access to reliable broadband,” Perdue said in a news release. “I have traveled extensively across the nation and everywhere I go I have heard how important increased broadband is to rural Americans. Reliable and affordable internet e-connectivity truly is the key to productivity in the 21st century and I’m pleased Congress recognized this need and has provided this critical funding. The inclusion of this money dovetails nicely with President Trump’s bold agenda to restore and expand the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, which will include massive investment in rural America.”

According to the release, 80 percent of the 24 million households across the country deemed to not have affordable, reliable high-speed internet are located in the nation’s rural areas.

The USDA currently awards grants for broadband projects through its Office of Rural Development’s Community Connect Program. Last year those funds totaled under $19 million for eight total projects.

While increasing in amount, the FY 2018’s Community Connect cycle now being accepted estimated grant availability of $30 million pales in comparison to the $600 million included in the Omnibus package.

According to the release, that funding will be used for a new pilot grant and loan combination program that aims at leveraging $1 billion for new broadband projects.

Since 2002, West Virginia has received eight Community Connect awards, including a project in Richwood and two projects in McDowell County.

Last year, while West Virginia was not represented, four of the eight projects that received awards were in Appalachian Virginia or Tennessee.

In February, Gov. Jim Justice announced 12 broadband projects that would be receiving Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) totaling $1.5 million, the first time in state history when broadband projects were considered.

Not connected to the USDA, CDBG funds are state-administered, federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

©2018 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.