USDA invests nearly $5 million for rural broadband in Texas

By Jennifer Whitlock

High-speed broadband service will soon be expanded in rural Texas as part of the latest round of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Loan and Grant Program.

The $4.48 million grant, awarded to Tatum Telephone Co., will provide fiber broadband service to a 41-square-mile area that includes about 986 households, three educational facilities, a health care facility, 67 businesses and 60 farms, according to a USDA informational handout. It was part of a larger $167 million disbursement the agency made in early August.

“Generations ago, the federal government recognized that without affordable access to electricity, Americans couldn’t fully participate in modern society and the modern economy. Broadband internet is the new electricity,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. “It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning and health care and to stay connected.”

Millions of Americans who lack reliable, high-speed internet were forced to cope with a sudden shift to an almost all-digital world after the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation last year. Rural families were often found sitting in parking lots outside schools or at restaurants offering free Wi-Fi to complete homework and conduct business.

And as technology on the farm continues to advance, fast and reliable internet connections are more important than ever. Software integrated into tractors and other farm equipment can help farmers and ranchers map fields, adjust distribution rates for seed, fertilizer or pesticides and more. But they often require internet connectivity to perform optimally.

The assistance from the ReConnect Program will help ease some of those woes, according to American Farm Bureau Federation AFBF Executive Vice President Dale Moore.

“This is going to be so important for farmers and ranchers and our neighbors in the rural communities to quality of life,” Moore told USDA’s Newsline.

The investments were part of $550 million allocated by Congress to fund a second round of the ReConnect Program, which began in 2018.

“This is an opportunity for us to add to the $1.5 billion we’ve already invested in the ReConnect Program, which has already benefited over 300,000 households across rural America,” Vilsack said. “These are real-life consequences of investments that are very much needed in rural places, and we’re excited about the role USDA has played under the ReConnect Program and will continue to play.”

The ReConnect Program provides grants, loans and loan/grant combinations to construct, improve or acquire facilities and equipment to deploy broadband service in eligible rural areas. Eleven other states—Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia—were included in this funding cycle.

Corporations, limited liability companies and partnerships (LLCs or LLPs), cooperatives or mutual associations, state and local governments, U.S. territories and Indian tribes are eligible to apply. At least 90% of a proposed funded service area must lack sufficient access to broadband, be in a rural area and serve all premises in the proposed service area.