After two telecommunications companies were selected for federal funding totaling $5 million to expand broadband service to 1,200-plus households in Evans and McIntosh counties, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue came to a picturesque farmstead near Claxton to help make the presentation.
So did both of Georgia’s U.S. senators – his cousin Sen. David Perdue and new Sen. Kelly Loeffler – as well as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, and U.S. Reps. Rick Allen of the 12th District and Buddy Carter of the 1st District. All of the top officials on stage Feb. 21 were Republicans.
Secretary Perdue’s flight out of Washington, D.C., was weather-delayed, so all of the other officials had spoken before he arrived. But he remained the featured speaker because the ReConnect Program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In his brief onstage remarks, Perdue credited “President Trump’s vision for connecting America, all of America” for the broadband expansion funding.
“He doesn’t believe in fly-over counties. How ’bout that?” Perdue said. “He wants the real deal everywhere, and thanks to his leadership, thanks to the members of our Congress that have appropriated this money.”
He thanked by name the members present, including Loeffler, who wasn’t in the Senate when Congress approved the funding in 2018, but who said she would have supported it. Perdue also thanked state officials, including Duncan and Kemp and members of the Legislature, such as Sen. Jack Hill, who support state programs aimed at broadband expansion.
The federal funding awards are part of the first round of ReConnect, for which Congress approved $600 million. This was divided into $200 million in grants, $200 million in loans and $200 in loan-grant combinations.
That wasn’t enough to go around, since there were 146 applications requesting $1.4 billion, according to a USDA news release. Companies in Georgia submitted seven applications, and three were awarded funding, said Joyce White, USDA Rural Development state director.
“All three categories were oversubscribed,” Perdue told reporters. “The good news is, they’ve done that two more times, so there’s another $1.1 billion coming. … Now the only challenge is, we just hit small pockets. I mean, it’s not small if it’s you; it’s very beneficial if it’s you, but we’re not getting everywhere. So we’ve got a long way to go; we’re way behind the curve.”
He mentioned precision agriculture, such as the use of digital mapping to guide fertilizer and chemical applications, as one use of broadband connectivity in rural areas. Other speakers had touted broadband as a becoming a necessity for education and for encouraging young people to remain in rural America, among other purposes.
“We all continue to be all-in on this because it brings so much to our state, economic development, better quality of life, access to telemedicine and many other things,” Kemp had said, after praising several state lawmakers and department heads for their efforts.
During the announcement event, officials speaking onstage shivered at times as they and the hundreds of people facing them withstood a cold breeze under the big, open-sided pavilion at Spring Hollow Farm, an event venue near Daisy east of Claxton.
PAC in Evans
The Pembroke Telephone Company, which does business as Pembroke Advanced Communications, or PAC, was approved for a $4 million funding package, including a $2 million grant and $2 million loan, to extend Fiber to the Premises, or FTTP, broadband service through eastern Evans County.
PAC, which is based in Pembroke in northern Bryan County, has already extended its network “out of pocket, without the grant” about five miles into Evans County to serve the Daisy area, said PAC Director of Operations Noah Covington.
But the funding will allow a faster expansion than would otherwise be possible throughout eastern Evans County as far as U.S. Highway 301, he said. The highway runs through Claxton in the middle of the county.
“The grant allows us serve 75 square miles in Evans County that otherwise would be a very slow build,” Covington said.
PAC’s funded expansion area includes “964 households, 20 pre-subscribed farms and 15 pre-subscribed businesses,” according to the USDA. The company has up to five years to complete the build-out, Covington said.
All of McIntosh
Meanwhile, Darien Telephone Company, headquartered at Darien on the coast in McIntosh County, was awarded a $1 million ReConnect Program grant to expand to an area including “257 households, 17 pre-subscribed businesses and a critical community facility,” according to the USDA release.
High-speed broadband service will then be available to 100% of McIntosh County, said Darien Telephone Company Director of Operations David Stevens.
March 16 is the deadline for applications in the second round of ReConnect funding, White announced. This time, $550 million is available nationwide.