HAMILTON - U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Donald “DJ” LaVoy announced Thursday, Dec. 5, that USDA has invested $62.3 million in high-speed broadband infrastructure that will create or improve e-connectivity for more than 8,000 rural households, 57 farms, 44 businesses, 17 educational facilities, 14 critical community facilities and three healthcare facilities in rural Alabama. This is one of many funding announcements in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.
“Beyond connecting us to our friends and family, high-speed broadband internet connectivity, or e-connectivity, is a necessity, not an amenity, to do business, access opportunities in education and receive specialized health care in rural America today,” LaVoy said. “Under the leadership of President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, USDA is committed to being a strong partner to rural communities in deploying this critical infrastructure because we know when rural America thrives, all of America thrives.”
Congressman Robert Aderholt added, “When the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee created the Re-Connect program back in 2018 under my leadership, our goal was to help expand broadband to rural areas and help close the ‘digital divide’ that isolates so many parts of rural America. I believed then, and continue to believe now, that the expansion, maintenance and upgrading of broadband service should be of highest priority. This program is beginning to pay dividends in rural Alabama and America. I want to thank the men and women of the United States Department of Agriculture and, of course, Secretary Perdue, for sharing this goal of expanding access.”
Tombigbee Electric Cooperative, Inc. has been awarded $29,495,232 as a 50 percent loan-grant combination in the first round of USDA's ReConnect Pilot Program. The awarded funds will be used to develop an All-Dielectric Self-Supporting (ADSS) fiber network and extend freedom FIBER - the company's ultra high-speed fiber optic service - to 1,100 square miles of unserved areas of Marion, Lamar, Fayette, Franklin, Winston and Walker counties. This investment is expected to reach 2,152 households, 20 farms, 15 businesses, 10 critical community facilities, five educational facilities and one health care facility.
freedom FIBER currently is connected in Hamilton and Winfield, with construction underway in Haleyville, Hackleburg, Sulligent and Vernon. After receiving a $2.98 million grant under USDA’s Community Connect Broadband Grant Program in May, 2018, Tombigbee Communications expanded service to Brilliant.
“Expanding freedom FIBER broadband to residents across northwest Alabama meets a critical e-connectivity need,” said Steve Foshee, president and CEO of Tombigbee Communications. “From students having the ability to complete their schoolwork to our neighbors in need of receiving adequate healthcare, freedom FIBER broadband will help improve the lives and communities of rural northwest Alabama. Thanks to our partners at USDA, Tombigbee will help close the digital divide, advance our communities and allow rural America to flourish.”
Residents of the grant-funded areas can expect construction to begin in Spring, 2020, and should have access to ultra-high-speed internet within three to five years. The construction will begin in Marion County, then proceed to Lamar, Fayette, Winston, Franklin and Walker counties.
The expansion of freedom FIBER has allowed northwest Alabama to be the first region in the state to offer universally available fiber optic services. The reliable, ultra-high-speed internet connection is among the fastest available in Alabama. Tombigbee Communications offers residential customers two speeds: 100 mbps up and 100 mbps down, or 1 gigabit up and 1 gigabit down. Businesses will receive 10 gigabit services, with varied rates depending on the specific needs of each company. VoIP phone services also will be available. freedom FIBER is not metered or data capped.
In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA 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 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks.
These grants, loans and combination funds enable the federal government to partner with the private sector and rural communities to build modern broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service. Insufficient service is defined as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.
In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force. To view the report in its entirety, please view the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. In addition, to view the categories of the recommendations, please view the Rural Prosperity infographic.
USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.
The Alabamian is working to determine which areas of Winston County will be affected by this announcement, and will have a more in-depth story as soon as possible.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.