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Rural Towns Can Seek Broadband Funds Through Pilot Program

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A truck laying fiber optic cables.

The internet might seem to connect everyone, but there are still towns in Oregon and California that lack a broadband connection.

Starting next year, they can begin applying for federal dollars to help them get a network. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently launched ReConnect, a pilot program that will provide loans and grants to cities needing a broadband connection.

Congress originally planned to set aside $ 60 million in this fiscal year’s budget for rural broadband initiatives. But lawmakers including Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley helped bring that price up to $600 million.

He says that’s not nearly enough.

“We know that the need is in the billions of dollars,” Merkley said. “That was the maximum we could squeeze into this budget at that moment.”

Although the internet has been around for decades, Merkley says setting up the infrastructure can be complicated for small towns. Internet companies tend to keep their developments under wraps to protect trade secrets; sometimes they’ll even place wires and then abandon the project when they decide it’s not lucrative any more.

That means a town might not even know that it has fiber-optic cables nearby.

“I’ve talked to so many city councilors who are tearing their hair out as they try to figure this out,” Merkley said. “Even just trying to figure out who might have the nearest cable to start the negotiation.”

Cities have to have a population of 20,000 people or fewer in order to apply, and they need to have either a really slow internet connection or none at all. The USDA isn’t accepting applications yet, but it is hosting a series of webinars throughout January.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.