CARBONDALE — The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday $46.4 million to assist underserved, rural populations in Southern Illinois connect to high-speed internet.
Sonny Perdue, the USDA’s director, made the announcement electronically alongside U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, and U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, as well as representatives from telephone cooperatives Hamilton County Telephone and Flat Rock Telephone.
The USDA released specifics on the deal during the announcement. It said that Hamilton Telephone will use a $20 million ReConnect grant and a $20 million ReConnect loan to connect 19,749 people, 462 businesses, 347 farms, 16 educational facilities, three post offices and four fire stations to high-speed broadband internet in Saline, Williamson, Franklin and White counties in Illinois.
Similarly, Flat Rock Telephone will use a $3.2 million ReConnect grant and a $3.2 million ReConnect loan to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 1,460 people, 50 farms, 13 businesses and a fire station to high-speed internet in Lawrence and Crawford counties.
The USDA’s ReConnect program provides a series of loans and grants designed to help rural areas bring broadband internet to its communities. The seed for the program came in 2018 when congress gave the USDA $600 million to support rural parts of the country in bringing high-speed internet to town.
Bost and Shimkus both thanked Perdue and the Trump administration for releasing the funds. They both remarked that the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how deep the divide is in rural communities without reliable access to high-speed internet — they said this is evident as some students struggle to connect to do their remote school work.
“This is truly going to be very very well received by agriculture,” Rich Guebert, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, said during the online event. He and Purdue said as farming becomes more high-tech, farmers need reliable internet.
Kevin Pyle, general manager of Hamilton Telephone, said the cooperative has existed for more than 50 years and he is seeing history repeating itself with the announcement of the grant funding.
“We’re able to do what they did in the '50s about connecting folks,” he said of the rural telephone boom.
According to the USDA’s website, it received 146 applications between May 31, 2019 and July 12, 2019 requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100% loan, 100% grant, and loan-grant combinations. The website also said these funds allow the federal government to create public-private partnerships with internet companies to improve internet infrastructure to these areas with insufficient internet speeds. The USDA defines insufficient service as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.
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