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Nation’s rural areas get $759M for high-speed internet

Over $5.5M for Iowa, in addition to state’s commitment

Nation’s rural areas get $759M for high-speed internet
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left, and Mitch Landrieu, White House senior adviser, listen Thursday at a community panel on rural high-speed internet at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

RALEIGH, N.C. — The U.S. Agriculture Department announced Thursday it is making available $759 million in grants and loans to enable rural communities — including two in Iowa — to access high-speed internet, part of the broader $65 billion push for high-speed connectivity from last year's infrastructure law.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and White House senior adviser Mitch Landrieu unveiled this round of the federal help during a visit to North Carolina. There are 49 recipients in 24 states. Two of then, totaling over $5.5 million in grants and loans, are in Iowa:

  • $881,072 in grants and $881,072 in loans for a Washington County project to deploy a fiber-optic network to connect 463 people, 59 farms and 11 businesses to high-speed internet. The Biden administration said the Kalona Cooperative Telephone Company would work to make high-speed internet affordable by participating in an Federal Communications Commission program for low-income customers and one for schools and libraries.
  • A $3,797,296 loan for a Hamilton County project to deploy a fiber-optic network to connect 2,827 people, 77 businesses, five farms and three educational facilities to high-speed internet. The loan recipient is Complete Communication Services Corp.

The applicants had to commit to building facilities capable of providing high-speed internet service with speeds of 100 Mbps download and upload to every location in its proposal.

“Rural America needs this," said Vilsack, a former Democratic governor of Iowa. "Rural America deserves this."

He made the announcement in North Caroline in front of John Deere equipment, noting that rural areas tend to be where the electricity for cities is generated and where city dwellers and suburbanites go for vacations.

The announcement and visit to North Carolina, a state with an open U.S. Senate seat, come as President Joe Biden and other top Democratic officials are trying to sell their achievements to voters before the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

The administration is specifically targeting support for small towns and farm communities — places that generally favor Republicans over Democrats.

"Rural communities are the backbone of our nation, but for too long they've been left behind and they have been underrecognized," Landrieu said. "We all know how essential the internet is in order to access lifesaving telemedicine, to tap into economic opportunity, to connect with loved ones, to work on precision agriculture and so much more. That's just beyond unacceptable that that's not available to rural America."

Both Iowa projects being helped are in congressional districts led by Republicans up for election in November — U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Southeastern Iowa and U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra in Western Iowa. Both voted against the infrastructure bill.

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“I have been calling for a fully-funded bipartisan bill that would improve our bridges, roads, broadband, locks, dams, broadband, and the electric grid,” Miller-Meek said in a statement at the time. “I will not support a bill that is directly tied to a multi-trillion dollar reckless tax and spend package that increases inflation and had no Republican input, even though Congress is evenly divided.”

Tweeted Feenstra at the time: “After 15+ hrs of watching the chaos & dysfunction of Democrat leadership unfold yesterday, I voted NO on their effort to advance #BuildBackBroke.”

The state of Iowa has devoted millions to developing rural broadband, a task that private companies avoid undertaking without subsidies because it doesn’t make economic sense for them to build fiber-optic networks to serve so few customers.

In 2021, the Iowa Legislature approved $100 million for rural broadband funding, although Gov. Kim Reynolds had called for far more over three years.

Later in 2021, Reynolds — a Republican — boosted the state’s commitment by another $200 million, using money allocated by Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act. Early this year, she announced that 160 applicants, serving over 39,000 homes, schools and businesses, had been approved for $210 million in grants.

“We’ve received an overwhelming number of applications and funding requests, which highlights the considerable need to expand broadband to all corners of the state,” she said in making the announcement.

Vilsack said Thursday that past trips show how broadband connectivity is starting to make a difference.

While in Nevada this summer, he heard from people in the town of Lovelock who plan to use the improved internet to enhance their emergency responder services and tourism opportunities as well as help high school students who are earning college credit online.