Rural America lags behind the rest of the nation in internet access and speed, but a $152 million investment by U.S. Department of Agriculture is the latest large-scale effort to narrow the divide.
On Monday, USDA announced that it is dedicating $152 million in loans and grants to finance 19 rural broadband projects in 14 states, including Oklahoma.
“Deploying high-speed broadband internet connectivity, or ‘e-Connectivity,’ in rural America expands access to essential health, educational, social and business opportunities,” Donald LaVoy, USDA deputy undersecretary for rural development, said, adding the administration is committed to modernizing rural infrastructure.
While the majority of U.S. households, 78% of them, have internet subscriptions, rural and low-income areas average 13% fewer, according to Census Bureau. These figures account for different types of access, including phone data usage, WiFi and more. Anything faster than dial-up is considered broadband.
USDA-supported projects vary greatly in size and expense, with some taking loans in the tens of millions, and others receiving smaller grants.
Oklahoma Western Telephone Co. is the recipient of a $845,400 grant, to help pay for installation of a fiber-to-the-premises network to 108 households in LeFlore County.
Poor broadband availability plagues many Oklahoma counties, but east and southeast sections of the state, like LeFlore County, are most deprived, Census Bureau data shows.
LeFlore County's fiber network will span 11.2 miles, according to USDA, and support service of up to one gigabyte per second for each customer.
The largest project on the list calls for a $34.45 million loan for work benefitting three Kentucky counties and 5,311 homes and businesses. Awarded to local provider Logan Telephone Cooperative, the loan provides for creation of a fiber-to-the-home system that will "enable rural families, educators, and businesses to access higher speed broadband internet as well as improved telephone voice services," according to USDA.
The $152 million in USDA investments come just months after the FCC approved $69 million for Oklahoma, and $503 million nationally, as part of the Connect America Fund Phase II auction. The auction held fall 2018 allocated $1.488 billion in support of broadband expansion nationwide.
Oklahoma's $69 million will be invested over 10 years, bringing broadband to an estimated 43,319 rural homes and businesses. This most recent approval followed up another $25.3 million that had been authorized for the state in May and June.