U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue personally delivered a $2.8 million grant—the first from his department’s ReConnect program for rural broadband—to Forked Deer Electric Cooperative, which says it’s building high-speed internet to provide access to “forgotten America.”
During his visit to the Halls, Tennessee-based co-op, Perdue praised the work of electric co-ops nationwide in their efforts to connect rural communities. He spent several hours touring communities in western Tennessee that will benefit from the co-op’s fiber deployment.
“There are a lot of advantages that electric co-ops have when it comes to broadband,” Perdue said during the Oct. 18 ceremony at the co-op’s headquarters. He noted that co-ops know their customers and already have lines in place and that broadband deployment “fits right into your business model.”
The ReConnect program began in 2018 with $600 million from Congress to be disbursed for rural broadband in 2019. ReConnect offers 100% loans, 100% grants, and 50/50 loan-grant awards. It received 146 applications this year between May 31 and July 12. Congress added another $550 million this year.
David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, noted that spotlighting an electric co-op with the first ReConnect award is a nod to the value co-ops bring to such public investments.
“Tennessee co-ops have demonstrated the ability to maximize state and federal funds. For every dollar of grant money received, Tennessee co-ops are investing $15 of their own money,” he said. “This multiplier means that Tennessee electric co-ops are stretching grant funds further to have the greatest impact.”
Forked Deer built a 120-mile fiber backbone for system communications in 2017 and expanded into retail broadband this year with a wholly owned, not-for-profit subsidiary, Forked Deer Connect LLC.
The co-op plans to deploy broadband with minimum speeds of 200 megabits per second to download data and 200 Mbps to upload across its entire service territory, which averages only seven customers per mile. The ReConnect grant targets 347 of Forked Deer’s most rural members, whose homes dot 435 square miles along the Mississippi River bottomland.
“Down the bluff, toward the river, that’s forgotten America when it comes to connectivity,” said Forked Deer CEO Jeff Newman. “Now those people will have the same advantages as the people living in big cities because of broadband connectivity.”
Perdue, Newman and TECA officials talked with residents and businesses in the grant area about the co-op’s plans to deliver broadband. They visited a grain elevator for loading barges on the Mississippi River, a cotton farm, a cooperatively owned cotton gin and a seed company.
“The secretary toured where there will be actual benefits from the ReConnect grant,” said Mike Knotts, TECA vice president of government affairs.
Parents want broadband so their children can do schoolwork at home, and farmers need it to reap the full potential of their irrigation and agriculture equipment, said Newman.
Now, with the ReConnect help, “they were astonished that they would be able to get that connectivity to where they are,” he said.
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Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.