Alabama companies and nonprofits could be in line to take advantage of $600 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help rural areas upgrade to broadband connections.
The state arm of the USDA is holding seminars May 8 – 9 in Auburn to show telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities which areas are eligible. These areas can then apply for funding through USDA’s ReConnect Program aimed at boosting rural connectivity with better broadband service.
“The internet coverage is what we’re looking at with ReConnect,” Michael Wilber with the USDA said. “Any rural area that doesn’t have access to 10 – 1 speed — that’s 10 megabytes down, one megabyte up — is considered not to have access to broadband. Those would be the eligible areas in rural Alabama.”
Chris Beeker, Alabama state director for the USDA, said those eligible for the financial assistance include nonprofits, for-profit corporations, limited liability companies, co-op organizations and state and local governments.
“We want to ensure applicants from Alabama, and the region, have the best shot at being successful when applying for these ReConnect funds,” Beeker said. “I am glad we’re able to host this event, and given the importance of broadband in rural Alabama, this is a great opportunity for some game-changing investments in our communities.”
At the conference, those who are interested in applying for funding will be walked through the application process by USDA staff. Alabama is one of five states in the program startup.
“People who are going to apply at this workshop, we will walk them through the entire application process,” Beeker said. “They are actually going to get into the nuts and bolts and walk people through applications.”
There are three levels of funding available: a 100 percent grant, a 50 percent loan/50 percent grant combination or a 100 percent low-interest loan. There is $200 million available at each level.
The maximum amount that can be requested for a 100 percent grant is $25 million and the application period ends May 31. For the loan/grant combination, the maximum amount for an application is $25 million for the loan and $25 million for the grant; applications must be in by June 21.
For the 100 percent loans, the maximum available is $50 million and the application period ends July 12. The USDA began evaluating and awarding loan-only projects on a first-come, first-served basis in April.
Once an application is made for a specific area, the USDA will then send out a team to verify its eligibility for receiving funds.
“Basically, you’re looking at unincorporated areas or areas of 20,000 people or less,” Wilber said. “It’s going to require testing on their side with the people they want to provide the service to. If they got 10 – 1 speed, then that area is not eligible.”
No applications have been made from Mobile or Baldwin counties, so there have been no tests conducted to see which areas are eligible. Beeker said those attending the workshop in Auburn on either May 8 or 9 can begin discovering what areas in those two counties may be eligible. To apply online and learn more about ReConnect, go to usda.gov/reconnect.
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