SPRINGFIELD (FarmWeekNow) — At least 121 farms, 145 businesses, 10 educational facilities and nearly 5,000 people across rural areas of three southern Illinois counties will soon have access to high-speed internet under nearly $30 million in federal grants awarded Aug. 21.
The funding, allocated through the fourth round of USDA Rural Development’s ReConnect Program, is part of a larger $667 million in grants and loans for 37 projects in 22 states.
Illinois’ share, which totals $28.669 million, will be split as a $24.278 million grant to Wabash Telephone Cooperative Inc. for projects in Clinton and Jefferson counties, and as a $4.39 million grant to Hamilton County Telephone Co-Op for projects in Jackson County.
Both awards will be used to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network capable of providing internet with matching upload and download speeds of 100 megabits per second.
The two providers will also both participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline and Affordable Connectivity Program, making their high-speed internet products affordable for consumers.
Funding aims to “create more opportunity” to southern Illinois farmers and rural businesses
Speaking to reporters Aug. 18, before the Monday announcement, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the funding aims to “create more opportunity” for farmers and rural businesses to expand their markets.
He framed most of those market opportunities around utilizing precision agriculture technology and producing climate-smart commodities, wherein row crop and livestock farmers who lower their greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon can leverage those reductions to offer a value-added product.“To do that is going to require a lot of technology that will absolutely depend on high-speed internet access,” Vilsack said. “So the opportunity to install and provide opportunities for farmers in these communities creates the ability for them to participate in this more, new and better market opportunity.”
USDA Rural Utilities Service administrator Andy Berke added: “If you’re a farmer (and) you want to run your business out of your house, we not only want to make sure that you have a connection, but that connection can actually run your business and make sure that you have these kinds of opportunities.”
Increasing broadband access is more than improving economic situations
But increasing high-speed internet access in rural areas isn’t just about improving economic situations. It also serves to improve educational outcomes and “close the rural health gap by increasing access to telemedicine,” said Mitch Landreau, the senior White House adviser who oversees implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law. “Too long rural communities haven’t had access to basic resources like affordable, reliable high-speed internet,” Landreau said. “And considering that we all know how essential internet is in the 21st century, it’s beyond unacceptable that it’s been that way.”
The funding announced Monday stems from money reserved for the program in the bipartisan infrastructure law that passed through Congress in 2021.
About $3.1 billion has already been distributed to 179 ReConnect Program projects, and around $260 million has yet to be allocated, Vilsack said.
Illinois in the ReConnect Program’s third round received about $92 million for projects that expand high-speed internet in rural communities.