Electric Co-ops Win Nearly $64M in Latest ReConnect Broadband Funding

Jo-Carroll Energy in Elizabeth, Illinois, has been awarded a $14 million ReConnect grant from the USDA program to deploy rural broadband. (Photo By: Jo-Carroll Energy)
Jo-Carroll Energy in Elizabeth, Illinois, has been awarded a $14 million ReConnect grant from the USDA program to deploy rural broadband. (Photo By: Jo-Carroll Energy)

“The future.”

That’s what a $14 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect rural broadband program means to Jo-Carroll Energy members, said President and CEO Mike Casper.

“The key takeaway is that our members in this beautiful slice of America will be more successful, healthy and educated,” he said Oct. 19, when USDA announced this year’s largest ReConnect award would go to the Elizabeth, Illinois-based cooperative. 

More than 7,600 people, 378 farms, 150 businesses, eight public schools, three fire stations, two post offices and two museums will gain access to high-speed internet thanks to the grant, which Jo-Carroll will use to expand the buildout of its fiber-to-the-premises network.

“America and economic development depend on a robust infrastructure, fiber being an essential component,” Casper said.

Jo-Carroll Electric is among about a dozen electric co-ops or related entities that received a total of nearly $64 million from the latest round of the ReConnect program, which is in its second year of giving grants, loans and 50/50 awards to rural broadband developers.

MiEnergy Cooperative, with headquarters in Rushford, Minnesota, and Cresco, Iowa, was another big winner with a $9.7 million ReConnect 50/50 grant and loan to broadband provider Harmony Telephone Co., which the co-op partially owns. The money will help provide high-speed internet access for 1,579 people, 96 farms and 31 businesses in northeastern Iowa.

“The pandemic has shown us that access to high-speed broadband in rural areas is just as critical and essential as access to electricity was in the 1930s,” said MiEnergy President and CEO Brian Krambeer. “This award will create life-changing opportunities for our rural members, allowing them to have the speeds necessary for working and learning from home.”

Central Alabama Electric Cooperative, based in Prattville, won an $8.6 million ReConnect grant to deploy broadband fiber to 13,853 people, 149 farms and 77 businesses across seven counties.

Decatur, Tennessee-based Volunteer Energy Cooperative will use a $3.7 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 2,687 people, 79 farms and nine businesses.

Ntera LLC, the broadband subsidiary formed by Cornell, Wisconsin-based Chippewa Valley Electric Cooperative and local internet provider Citizens Connected, will build a fiber network to serve 2,044 people, 33 farms and 33 businesses with a $3 million ReConnect grant.

Brownstown, Indiana-based Jackson County Rural Electric Membership Corp. will connect 4,881 people with a $1.9 million loan and a $1.9 million grant from the program.

Grants, New Mexico-based Continental Divide Electric Cooperative will use a $1.1 million grant to deliver broadband fiber to 85 people, four farms and a business, and Linden, Indiana-based Tipmont REMC’s  $1 million grant will go toward fiber-to-the-premises for 279 people, 10 businesses and 16 farms.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at an Oct. 21 award announcement.

“I am so proud of our rural communities, who have been working day in and day out, just like they always do, producing the food and fiber America depends on. We need them more than ever during these trying times and expanding access to this critical infrastructure will help ensure rural America prospers for years to come.”

USDA received 172 applications by its April deadline for ReConnect funds and has awarded more than $414 million so far this year.

Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.