Nearly all of Vermont now eligible for USDA funding to expand internet

Utility worker in hangs spool of cable from utility pole
Contractors for Consolidated Communications install fiber-optic broadband internet cables on utility poles in Montpelier on April 5. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Nearly all of Vermont is now eligible for funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help cover the cost of building high-speed broadband infrastructure in rural areas, thanks to a rule change led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

USDA is accepting applications for its $1.15 billion ReConnect Program, which is designed to help offset the high cost of building broadband infrastructure to rural communities where it would be otherwise unprofitable and untenable.

Loans and grants go to local, state, tribal and territory governments, as well as corporations, companies and cooperatives, in areas of the country where at least 90% of households lack broadband service at 100 megabits per second download and 20 upload. Funding priority goes to low-density rural areas with even slower and sparser service.

Previously, a large swath of Vermont served by the Vermont Telephone Co. Inc., or VTel, was ineligible for the program. Leahy, in his capacity as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, helped change the eligibility requirements.

Now, nearly all areas of the state with slow service qualify, except for those where VTel is providing fiber service.

Leahy in a statement Tuesday said he is delighted the USDA changed its rules. Before now, he said “Vermont has been handcuffed from receiving any funds” from the program.

“As a rural state, Vermont’s economic development hinges upon access to high-quality internet and telephone services, particularly as more Vermonters are working from home and more remote workers are moving to Vermont,” he said. “As school, work and access to health care shifted even further online, access to quality, high-speed broadband service will allow more Vermonters to learn, stay in touch with loved ones, and access essential government services from the comfort of their homes.”

The ReConnect Program money is in addition to nearly $2 billion dedicated to broadband infrastructure in Congress’s and President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package signed into law this month. Vermont will get $100 million of that money to expand broadband coverage.

Applicants to the ReConnect Program must commit to building facilities capable of providing high-speed internet. USDA also considers community economic needs, service affordability, local or tribal government affiliation, and more factors when making funding decisions.
Applications for the Reconnect money can be filed here.

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