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USDA boosts rural broadband buildouts in parts of the Mountain West

Wire being installed underground next to a road
Scott Franz
Telecommunications companies install new internet cables along roads in the Mountain West

The Biden administration announced last week that it's giving $502 million in loans and grants to rural communities and telecommunications companies to expand high-speed internet access. The list of grantees includes projects in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.

The funds come via the USDA's ReConnect Program, which works to boost broadband buildouts in communities where internet download speeds are less than 100 megabits per second (Mbps). That’s enough for an average family to stream on multiple devices.

Kent Blackwell is the interim CEO of the Delta Montrose Electric Association. His organization is receiving almost $14 million to deploy a "fiber-to-the-home" network that will "connect 3,577 people, 148 businesses, one school, and 765 farms to high-speed internet in the Colorado counties of Delta, Montrose and Gunnison," according to the USDA's list of recipients. Blackwell approximates that for every mile of construction, the electric cooperative will be able to provide high-speed internet to four homes.

He said internet speeds in some parts of rural Colorado are less than 4 Mbps.

“Other areas, especially as you kind of get closer to the city of Montrose or even Delta, you may be able to get a 25-meg service,” Blackwell said. “But consistently, most areas of our service territory did not have anything near 100 meter service unless it was over a wireless service … and even that's subject to a tree being in the way or subject to frequency interference.”

The Delta Montrose Electric Association was granted $10.5 million in 2021 from the same program, allowing it to design a fiber-optic installation in the western part of its service area, which it plans to roll out soon.

Blackwell said these USDA grants are critical in bringing internet access to rural parts of Colorado, especially because big telecommunications companies are disinclined to make such investments, resulting in subpar services compared to more populated areas.

“Without these subsidy programs, there's no way that rural communities could ever have access to good quality broadband,” Blackwell said. “Montrose and Delta counties … they epitomize rural America. They are what these types of programs are designed to solve.”

The other grants include $8.5 million for Montana’s Project Telephone Company to expand high-speed service in Big Horn and Yellowstone counties, including parts of the Crow Reservation. In Wyoming, the Tri County Telephone Association will use $9.5 million to expand service in Big Horn, Hot Springs, Park, Sheridan, Washakie counties.

Earlier this summer, the ReConnect Program sent another $401 million to rural communities and businesses, including projects in Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Emma VandenEinde
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