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The United States Department of Agriculture on Wednesday announced an almost $5 million investment in Missouri's high-speed broadband infrastructure.

The funding, which is provided through the USDA's ReConnect Program and will go toward establishing broadband infrastructure in rural areas without access to high speed internet, will be split between two Mid-Missouri projects.

Counties benefiting from the funding include Callaway, Miller, Maries, Camden and Gasconade.

Kingdom Telephone Company, a Mid-Missouri internet and telephone provider, was awarded a $4,222,260 grant to install a fiber-to-premises network across 81 square miles in rural Missouri.

Kingdom Telephone Company provides service to seven exchanges in Callaway and Montgomery counties, but the new network will be just north of the current service area in Audrain County.

According to the USDA ReConnect Program project chart, the new network service area includes more than 900 households, close to 2,400 people, a community facility, almost 40 businesses and 107 farms.

"We're elated that we're getting a grant to build fiber to the homes in an area that desperately needs broadband service today," General Manager Renee Reeter said. "They're out there with satellite service or a very low-level wireless service so they don't have enough to check their email, or have nothing at all."

Reeter said Kingdom Telephone Company is working through the process of drawing the money down from the federal government, but hopes to have plows in the ground by early 2022.

Gascosage Electric Cooperative, a non-profit utility based out of Dixon, will receive a grant for $701,985 to deploy a fiber-to-premises network across one square mile in rural Missouri.

The Gascosage Electric Cooperative serves Camden, Maries, Miller, Phelps and Pulaski counties.

According to the USDA ReConnect Program project chart, the new network service area includes 163 households, 416 people and a farm.

General Manager Carmen Hartwell said the ReConnect Program has helped the cooperative break into the internet provider industry.

"It makes it that much more viable for us to continue on with these projects and reach our members," Hartwell said. "And honestly, these grants are ideal because they are to reach the members that nobody else wants to serve. They're unserved or underserved because it's a sparsely populated area and it doesn't make a lot of sense for a profit company to go in and build in these areas."

Hartwell said the cooperative was previously awarded funding through the ReConnect Program's first round of funding, and is awaiting environmental approval to begin drawing those funds down to use.

The cooperative will have to go through the same process for the $701,985 grant it was awarded Wednesday.

Hartwell said the cooperative will continue to pursue funding opportunities and expand its internet services.

The ReConnect Program provides loans and grants to corporations, LLCs, cooperatives and state and local governments, who can then use the funding to build, purchase or improve facilities and equipment necessary for providing broadband service to eligible rural communities.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan puts an emphasis on broadband infrastructure in rural areas to reach a goal of 100 percent high-speed internet coverage.

"Generations ago, the federal government recognized that without affordable access to electricity, Americans couldn't fully participate in modern society and the modern economy. Broadband internet is the new electricity," Vilsack said in a news release. "It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning and health care and to stay connected."

The USDA's investment in Missouri is part of a larger broadband investment of $167 million across 12 states.

In addition to more broadband funding in Missouri, the USDA's ReConnect Program will benefit rural communities in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

The projects are funded through the congressional allocation of $550 million for the second round of the ReConnect Program projects, along with other funds that have been designated to the program since 2018.

Applications for a third round of ReConnect Program funds should be available in coming weeks.

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