TRAVERSE CITY — The United States Department of Agriculture is offering up to $600 million in grants and loans to help companies expand broadband coverage in rural America.

Telecommunications companies, internet service providers, rural electric cooperatives and utilities and municipalities may apply for funding through USDA’s new ReConnect Program to connect rural areas that currently have insufficient broadband service.

Congress appropriated funds in the fiscal year 2018 budget for the broadband pilot program.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a release that high-speed internet connectivity has become a necessity for economic opportunity and quality of life.

Applications are due by April 29 for $200 million in grant funds. Applications are due by May 29 for another $200 million in loan and grand applications. Applications are due by June 28 for another $200 million in low-interest loans.

Projects funded through the ReConnect Program must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.

Approved projects must create access speeds of at least 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload.

Priority will be awarded for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to rural homes, businesses and farms. The USDA wants to stretch the funds as far as possible by leveraging existing networks and systems without overbuilding existing services already greater than 10/1 mbps.

To help customers with the application process, USDA is holding a series of online webinars and regional in-person workshops. The full list of upcoming public webinars and workshops can be found at the ReConnect Program’s resource portal at reconnect.usda.gov.

Evaluation criteria include connecting agricultural production and marketing, e-Commerce, health care and education facilities.

Previous research by USDA has demonstrated that high-capacity broadband is critical to all aspects of rural prosperity, including the ability to grow and attract businesses, retain and develop talent, and maintain rural quality of life.

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.