How RDOF and Other Programs Bring Connectivity to Rural America

Steve Carroll
While the idea of a ubiquitous network is thriving in urban America, rural America is quickly being left behind. As smart buildings, smart neighborhoods and smart cities make life easier for city dwellers, those living in remote areas of the country don’t get to experience the same benefits.



According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 3% of the land area in the United States is urban; the remaining 97% is rural. And 20% of Americans currently live in what’s considered to be “rural America.” According to SCORE, small businesses with fewer than 50 employees provide 42% of all jobs in rural America. Getting them connected is vital to business growth in rural communities.


But rollout of fiber in these areas is slow because it’s more difficult to deploy. Depending on the terrain and climate, it can be expensive—and almost impossible to do. Because these areas have low population density, most broadband providers don’t rush to offer services to rural America (there often aren’t enough customers to pay for it).


Connectivity is vital in today’s environment. It’s no longer about having access to email and the ability to stream music or video. It’s about staying connected to friends and family, applying for remote positions, online learning, placing online grocery orders for pickup, seeing a doctor via telehealth and even accessing government services.


But if the country truly wants to achieve complete network ubiquity and make sure all citizens have the promise of digital opportunity, then rural America must catch up.


To support this effort, the U.S. federal government has set aside billions of dollars to improve internet speeds and connectivity in rural America.


In 2021, the highly anticipated Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was passed by Congress and hailed as a “once-in-a-generation investment” in the future, setting aside $65 billion to bridge this digital divide. The deal involves many initiatives, including the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, which is a plan to make sure every American has access to reliable high-speed internet.


But what many people inside and outside our industry don’t realize is that there’s a whole lot more going on to connect rural America besides the funds available through the 2021 infrastructure bill.


The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is a good example of programs focused on connecting rural America


It provides $20.4 billion in funding to communication service and internet providers so they can connect rural homes and small rural businesses across the country to broadband networks. These networks will support high speeds and low latency to meet the needs of rapid digital transformation.


Through a two-phase, reverse-auction framework, service providers ranging from telephone companies, electric cooperatives and fixed wireless internet providers to cable and satellite operators can bid for the amount they’re willing to accept to deliver their services.


The first phase of RDOF is complete, with $9.2 billion in funding being awarded to 180 winning bidders (view the complete list of RDOF projects). Phase 1 could impact up to 5.2 million homes and small businesses as they receive ultra-fast rural broadband with minimum download speeds of 100 Mb/s and minimum upload speeds of 20 Mb/s. Projects must be completed in areas where all households within the funding area lack broadband service.


The second phase of RDOF—whenever it opens for bidding—will award up to $11.2 billion in additional funding.


Another large source of financial funding for broadband infrastructure is being offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s eConnectivity Program (also called the ReConnect Program).


It offers loans, grants and loan-grant combinations to facilitate broadband deployment in rural areas where at least 90% of households in the proposed funding area lack access to broadband service. This program helps sparsely connected areas obtain funding to gain access to broadband when they don’t qualify for RDOF funds.


After naming Round 4 program awardees in 2023, the ReConnect Program isn’t currently accepting new applications, but that may soon change: President Joe Biden hopes to bolster the initiative with $400 million in additional funding in 2024.


Through the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA), the Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP) is another funding opportunity. It provides $288 million for states and internet providers to support high-speed infrastructure projects and is expected to connect 133,000 households across 13 projects.


With broadband now as essential as running water and electricity, we believe it’s time to elevate the standard of living in rural areas to match the urban parts of the country, and Belden applauds the policymakers who are working together to bridge this connectivity gap.


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