ReConnect can help rural schools with broadband access

The State Director of USDA Rural Development sat down with KASB recently to talk about a new federal program that could help Kansas schools connect their communities to broadband internet access. The video interview is available at this link. 

Lynne Hinrichsen said the $600 million federal ReConnect Infrastructure Program will enable “critical community facilities” like schools, hospitals and community centers to work with rural telecommunications and electric utilities on partnerships to provide broadband service to some of the most rural areas in the state. The application window opened in late April. 

USDA is making available up to $200 million in grants, $200 million in loan and grant combinations, and $200 million in low-interest loans. The application deadlines are:   

  • May 31, 2019, for grants; 
  • June 21, 2019, for loan/grant combinations; and
  • July 12, 2019, for low-interest loans.

To qualify for the project, communities must have 20,000 or fewer residents and be in rural areas where 90 percent of households don’t have sufficient access to 25 Mbps broadband. “We’re really trying to get these communities connected like their urban counterparts,” Hinrichsen told KASB.  

The USDA reports 17 percent of American teenagers say they are often or sometimes unable to complete homework because they don’t have reliable access to a computer or the internet. According to the national Education Superhighway group, as of 2018, 99 percent of school districts in Kansas can access the internet at speeds of 100kbps per student, but more than 2,500 students in three districts still need more bandwidth. More than 1,000 Kansas schools have fiber infrastructure, but 44 schools still need scalable broadband. Of those 44 schools, 99 percent are rural.  

Hinrichsen encourages school districts, community colleges, rural telecommunications and electric companies, tribal entities and other community partners to visit the state Rural Development website for more information on the ReConnect funding opportunity. The USDA General Field Representative for Kansas is Shekinah Pepper, who can be reached at (316) 570-3249 or by email at Shekinah.Bailey@wdc.usda.gov. “He will have a wealth of information… he’s very well-connected,” Hinrichsen said. 

 You can also call the USDA Rural Development State Office at 785-271-2700 and ask for a community programs representative. “You will get a live person, very knowledgeable, to help you through this process,” Hinrichsen said. 

Hinrichsen said her office has had initial meetings with Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration about rural prosperity and broadband access. Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers heads up the state’s rural revitalization efforts; Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, chairs the legislative task force on rural revitalization.  

 “We look forward to working hand in hand” with the Kelly Administration, Hinrichsen said. 

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