USDA awards Rural ReConnect grant to West Georgia partnership
In an increasingly connected world, broadband internet access is becoming more and more difficult for rural residents and farmers in particular to live without.
In a June 25 ceremony in Carroll County, the USDA announced funding for a project that will take three West Georgia counties a step closer to realizing that access.
A partnership between SyncGlobal Telecom and Carroll EMC received a $12.5 million grant under the USDA’s Rural Reconnect program. The partnership represents what officials hope can be a model for future efforts in Georgia and nationwide. The grant was announced during the ceremony, the first in Georgia. The project will eventually provide broadband access to rural areas in Carroll, Heard and Troup counties.
SyncGlobal and Carroll EMC will use the money to deploy a “fiber to the premises” network to connect 7,348 people, 121 farms, 15 businesses, four fire stations and one elementary school to high-speed broadband internet, according to a USDA press release.
For Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the pursuit of rural internet access dates back at least to his first campaign for governor of Georgia in 2002.
“I ran on this connecting Georgia in 2002 because it is a transformative infrastructure,” Perdue said. “It has the ability to bring people together. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
The funding is part of $100 million in grant funding made available for the ReConnect Pilot Program through the CARES Act enacted in March.
Speakers at the event likened the proliferation of rural high-speed internet access to the 1930s expansion of the rural electrical grid and noted that it will open opportunities to use data-driven technology in precision row-crop and livestock herd management applications alike.
“We think of broadband not only as what runs our equipment out on the farm,” American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said, noting that one in four rural Americans have broadband access. “It also returns data back to our farms from that machine so we can make decisions of how to plant, what to plant and where to plant. It makes us more efficient, it makes us better stewards of the land.”
Gov. Brian Kemp said recent events have underscored the necessity of remote connections, as U.S. residents have grappled with the spread of COVID-19 and sought ways to access healthcare, continue education and carry out jobs in ways that slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
“I think it’s pretty clear that we all have a commitment to help increase rural broadband access for economic growth, educational opportunities and more importantly now than ever health care access,” Kemp said. “We’ve certainly seen how crucial that is in recent months for our families across the state, as a lot of our schooling moved online. Our telehealth visits have literally skyrocketed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Some government functions have proven difficult with the connectivity issues facing rural Georgians.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said that in implementing the block grant program to provide financial relief to farmers devastated by Hurricane Michael, tasks like uploading documents - routine for residents of urban areas with high-speed access - become barriers to completing the grant application process.
USDA Rural Development is accepting applications for Rural ReConnect grants and loans. For more information about the ReConnect program, visit https://www.usda.gov/reconnect.
In a related move, on June 23, Kemp announced a statewide internet speed test through August.
The project, which is being implemented by broadband testing company Ookla, aims to provide educators with information about student connectivity. To participate, download the Speedtest app on mobile devices, or visit https://www.speedtest.net/ and click “Go” on laptop or desktop devices.