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USDA funding a revolution in rural access to broadband

By Stan Maddux
Indiana Correspondent

LANSING, Mich. – Rural areas receiving upgrades to their electrical service with help from USDA are receiving access to broadband all in the same package.
What seems to be a major breakthrough in filling internet service gaps much quicker is made possible by data technology contained in electrical lines replacing the old wires, said Alec Lloyd, a spokesman for USDA Rural Development in Michigan out of Lansing.
Lloyd said the dual purpose wires referred to as smart grid technology strung on utility poles lately is “kind of a revolution in infrastructure. Nobody is really noticing it but it’s making a huge difference in rural areas for them to compete in a global marketplace.”
Hanging lines with data monitoring the flow of electricity and transmitting broadband signals is included in work funded by $371 million in loans USDA is providing rural areas in 11 states from the latest federal assistance package announced on Aug. 13.
Sixty one million dollars of the loan money was awarded to the Jackson Purchase Energy Corporation in rural Paducah, Ky.
According to USDA, the utility on the west side of the state will use the financial assistance to connect 1,718 customers, build and improve 135 miles of line and add smart grid technology to its services.
Michigan is receiving an $8 million slice of the federal loan funding pie, according to USDA. According to USDA, about 25 percent of those monies for the Alger-Delta Cooperative Electric Association at Gladstone in the Upper Peninsula involve smart grid technology.
Lloyd said smart grid technology is data allowing utility companies to constantly monitor the flow of electricity and be notified automatically of a power outage.
He said the same data contained inside the power lines allows high speed internet signals to be transmitted.
Lloyd said dual purpose lines allow gaps in rural broadband coverage to be filled quicker by eliminating the often insurmountable cost of running separate broadband lines on new right of way that has to be purchased to carry the fiber.
“The right of way is there so when they upgrade the electrical grid to make it more reliable it gives them the side effect now in that residents have high speed internet,” he said.
Lloyd said not all of the latest funding is going for dual service lines because of varying needs by each utility, but a good portion is judging by work previously done under the same loan program.
He said 1,700 miles of power line with electrical and broadband capability was already installed in Michigan in 2020. “That is significant. In one year,” he said.
Lloyd said another 2,400 miles of fiber optics were added to power lines the past couple of years by Midwest Energy Cooperative at Cassopolis in southwest Michigan and Great Lakes Energy Electric Cooperative serving western and northern areas of the state.
According to USDA, the latest funding will help build and improve 3,741 miles of line in nine other states including North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arkansas. More than 222,000 rural residents and commercial customers will benefit from the investment.
Eighty million dollars of the loans are going for smart grid technology, USDA said. The loans are through the Electric Program which provides resources to maintain, expand, upgrade and modernize rural electric infrastructure under the authority of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.