Illinois to receive $25 million for rural broadband expansion

At least 84 farms, 22 businesses and 1,140 people in southern Illinois will have access to high-speed internet through a $25.2 million loan announced Thursday by USDA. 

The loan, which will be awarded to the Egyptian Telephone Cooperative Association under the third round of Rural Development’s ReConnect Program, is slated to be used to install a “fiber-to-the-premises network” across Jackson and Randolph counties.

It stems from a larger $502 million in loans and grants USDA awarded to 20 states for 32 projects that will provide 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download and upload speeds to rural homes and businesses. 

“Many parts of the country today still have limited internet access,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a media call. “Upload and download speeds simply don’t allow for multiple uses at home, don’t accommodate distance learning and telemedicine and don’t allow businesses to expand market opportunities and would not allow farmers the opportunity of precision agriculture.”  

USDA has awarded $858 million through the program’s third round, which caps out at $1.15 billion, according to Vilsack. He said USDA “anticipates and expects additional announcements in the very near future.”

Asked when the southern Illinois projects and those in other states might get started, Vilsack told reporters “each individual project has a different timeline” based on the availability of labor, materials, permitting and other resources.  

“So, it’s difficult to pin down precisely as to each project what a timeline is, but I can tell you knowing that the money is available will allow projects to move forward,” Vilsack said. 

Six Illinois counties previously received $46.4 million under the program’s second round, which Congress allocated $550 million for, and Hamilton County received $3.4 million under the program’s first round, funded at $600 million. 

Federal programs aimed at expanding broadband access are also in line to get a total $65 billion over the next five years through the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed in late 2021. 

The ReConnect Program is set to receive $1.926 billion and the Rural Broadband Program will receive $74 million from the law, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

And of the law’s money for broadband expansion, Illinois is set to receive at least $100 million. 

“Historically, we have had fits and starts when it comes to the allocation of resources for expanded broadband and improved broadband access and internet access,” Vilsack said. “Having said that I think Congress, with the bipartisan infrastructure law, has really stepped up and I think we now have for the first time a genuine opportunity to literally cover all of America.” 

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September 22, 2022 at 03:14PM

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