Thousands of residents from the Western Slope are in line to receive high-speed internet through a nearly $14 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to an announcement Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
The Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) will receive $13,885,361 to connect 3,577 people, 148 business, one school and 765 farms in Delta, Montrose and Gunnison counties, the USDA said. It's part of the agency's ReConnect program,
The third round of 32 loans and grants under ReConnect will send $502 million to rural communities in 20 states across the country.
ReConnect provide loans and grants for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas. To be eligible, organizations, ranging from government to private, must be in rural communities and with 50% of households in the area without sufficient access to broadband service.
“President Biden’s commitment to high-speed internet in rural communities is foundational to ensuring that the nation’s economy continues to expand from the bottom up and the middle out," Vilsack said in a statement. "High-speed internet will improve the rural economy. It will help rural businesses grow and get access to new markets. It will help rural residents get access to more and better health care and educational opportunities. USDA knows rural America is America’s backbone, and prosperity here means prosperity for all.”
Vilsack pointed specifically to the DMEA grant during a press call Wednesday.
"In addition to increasing access to high-speed internet, [DMEA] will make available to its members an affordable connectivity program and a lifeline program. Individuals could have service at low cost or even no cost for these services," Vilsack said.
The latter two programs are through the Federal Communications Commission. The affordable connectivity program provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands. In addition, eligible households can receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.
The FCC's Lifeline program provides subscribers with a discount to help pay for monthly telephone service, broadband Internet service, or bundled voice-broadband packages purchased from participating wireline or wireless providers.
The federal agency also noted the grant will serve vulnerable communities within Delta County. For purposes of the ReConnect program, the USDA uses a definition developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that determines the social vulnerability of every census tract in every county. Each tract is then ranked on 15 factors, including unemployment, minority status, disability, poverty, lack of vehicle access and crowded housing.
The funding announced this week, however, is just a sliver of what's to come. The bipartisan Infrastructure Act will spend $65 billion on expansion of affordable, high-speed internet, the USDA said in the statement. Of the $65 billion, $42.5 billion will be allocated to the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Most of the rest will go to the Affordable Connectivity Program at $14.2 billion; another $2.75 billion will be directed to a Digital Equity program; $2 billion for a Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program; $2 billion for the Rural Utilities Service Distance Learning, Telemedicine and Broadband Program; and, $1 billion for a new Middle Mile grant program.
The largest chunk of the infrastructure act's broadband funding is based on language from a 2020 bill developed by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
The San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative received a ReConnect grant of nearly $2 million in July to connect 129 people, eight businesses, a public school and 20 farms to high-speed internet in Conejos and Alamosa counties.