The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its first round of rural broadband funding awards as part of its ReConnect Pilot Program. Alabama got a huge slice of that pie to fund four major efforts.
Several broadband efforts in rural Alabama will move forward thanks to an investment of $62.3 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The funds, all from the federal agency’s ReConnect Pilot Program, will assist four different broadband projects in the state. A loan-grant combination of about $29.5 million went to Tombigbee Communications, while another $28.2 million of loan-grant funding was awarded to Millry Telephone Company. Additionally, National Telephone of Alabama received a loan-grant combo of $2.7 million, and Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative secured an approximately $2 million loan.
Donald LaVoy, USDA’s deputy under secretary for rural development, said his agency understands that success in rural America means success throughout the United States and that broadband will continue to play a critical role in smaller communities.
“Beyond connecting us to our friends and family, high-speed broadband Internet connectivity, or e-Connectivity, is a necessity to do business, access opportunities in education, and receive specialized health care in rural America today,” LaVoy said in a press release. “It is a necessity, not an amenity.”
Tombigbee Communications, the recipient of the largest award, will begin construction of a fiber network in Marion County before expanding it to Lamar, Fayette, Franklin, Winston and Walker counties. This project, which will serve citizens in northwest Alabama, is expected to touch a variety of customers, including 2,152 households, 20 farms, 15 businesses, 10 critical facilities, five educational facilities and one health-care facility. The network will cover a total of 1,100 square miles and is projected to be completed in three to five years.
Millry Telephone Company will use its $28.2 million award to build a fiber network designed to reach 3,797 households, 20 farms, 15 businesses, 11 educational facilities, four critical facilities and two health-care centers in Choctaw and Washington counties. Meanwhile, National Telephone of Alabama’s fiber project will impact 378 households, 17 farms and 14 businesses in Colbert County, and Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative’s funding will go toward a fiber network covering 1,676 households and one educational facility in Jackson and DeKalb counties.
Funds from the ReConnect Pilot Program can be used for a variety of costs, including “construction or improvement of buildings, land, and other facilities” that are needed for broadband and “reasonable pre-application expenses.”
Moreover, the program is designed to help rural areas that lack “sufficient broadband access,” which USDA defines as places without an Internet speed of 10Mbps/1Mbps. Although this threshold doesn’t match the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband (25Mbps/3Mbps), ReConnect awardees are required to provide a speed that meets or exceeds the FCC definition.
At an announcement event, LaVoy said broadband can have a profound influence on social connections and population patterns across the United States.
“Think of the front door of your home,” LaVoy said. “Closed, nothing comes in or out. Open, friends and neighbors enter, you go out to work, school, connect with friends. Broadband is a door opener. You can connect with anyone and any number of people and any resource that you so choose. One of the things that I really like about this program is it allows you to live anywhere you choose to live in this wonderful country of ours and still have access to the world.”