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The USDA Is Helping Expand Rural Broadband, But Providers Face Equipment Shortages

A cell phone tower in rural West Virginia.
Backyard Productions / Bigstock
A cell phone tower in rural West Virginia.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing millions of dollars to expand broadband in rural areas, but rural internet providers are facing shortages and long waits for equipment.

The USDA is allocating $167 million in grants and loans to broadband providers in Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado, Georgia, North Dakota, Arizona, Alaska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia in the latest round of the ReConnect program. The funds are part of $550 million Congress provided for the program in 2020 and 2021.

The Senate sent a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for broadband expansion, to the House this week.

Broadband providers already are having a hard time getting equipment. Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of the National Rural Broadband Association, says providers says that they can’t get 30-40% of the needed equipment to install broadband. This includes fiber, which she says companies are waiting up to 71 weeks to be delivered.

“(Fiber manufacturers) are trying to find ways to create scope and scale because the other thing, to their credit, that the large fiber manufacturers will share is that they will give AT&T preference over small providers in these rural markets because they're smaller,” Bloomfield says.

Bloomfield says some providers can’t get equipment in time to meet grant deadlines, which is why she is encouraging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to extend deadlines. Vilsack says the infrastructure bill will encourage providers to step up production.

“There is going to be tremendous opportunity for expansion,” Vilsack says. “That should make it easier for the companies here in the U.S. to scale up, as Shirley has indicated.”

Vilsack says a third round of grant funding will take place as more applications get accepted, and every state is in consideration.

“Every rural area in the country at the end of the day needs to be connected, regardless of what state they're in,” Vilsack says. “We can't just let someone's zip code be a determinant of whether or not they have access to this technology.”

Seth Bodine was KOSU's agriculture and rural issues reporter from June 2020 to February 2022.
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