HARMONY, Minn. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that Harmony Telephone Co. will receive $9.7 million to expand rural broadband coverage.

Harmony Telephone Co. will use a $4.8 million ReConnect grant and a $4.8 million ReConnect loan to install a fiber network that will connect 1,579 people, 96 farms and 31 businesses to high-speed broadband internet in Howard and Chickasaw counties in Iowa.

The Broadband ReConnect Program furnishes loans and grants to provide funds for the costs of construction, improvement or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.

"The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now — as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency," said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. "Access to telehealth services, remote learning for schoolchildren, and remote business operations all require access to broadband.”

Harmony Telephone Co. COO Jill Huffman said providing broadband access in rural areas is challenging due to the expense of infrastructure. She said during the pandemic they have seen the "disparities in the availability of high-speed broadband between rural and urban areas."

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“This award will provide opportunities to help households, farms and businesses thrive. Rural residents will have the broadband speed necessary for working and learning from home that their counterparts in urban areas have had,” said Huffman.

Huffman said that broadband helps "level the playing field for small business owners with their competitors by improving the ways they can connect with business partners, customers and suppliers."

"It allows telecommuting opportunities for rural residents and children to connect at similar internet speeds as their city classmates," she said.

Harmony Telephone previously received a ReConnect award in January, when it was awarded a $5.4 million grant-loan to connect 577 households with fiber within its exchange in rural Harmony. The project broke ground earlier this fall with cutovers to begin this winter and completion set for 2023.

Harmony Telephone is a privately held company based in Harmony that was purchased in 2006 by Mabel Cooperative Telephone Co. and Spring Grove Communications. In 2018, MiEnergy Cooperative bought into the company to become an additional owner. The company now provides broadband and telephone service to Harmony and the surrounding rural area, as well as cable TV service in Harmony.

USDA invested more than $698 million to create or improve e-connectivity to rural customers in 33 states in the first round of the ReConnect Program. So far, in the second round, USDAA has announced more than $631 million in funding.

Another recently announced grant will connect 1,413 people, 104 farms, 49 businesses, a public school and a fire station to high-speed broadband internet in Dawson, Richland and Wibaux counties in Montana and McKenzie County, North Dakota. Reservation Telephone Cooperative will use the $6.9 million ReConnect grant, along with $2.3 million of its own funds, to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network in those areas, which are considered unserved or underserved.

“Broadband is a cornerstone to prosperity in North Dakota’s rural communities because it is essential to economic development, as well as access to health care, educational opportunities and connections to people and services,” said USDA North Dakota State Director for Rural Development Clare Carlson.

“No matter the industry or the household, the internet has become a central part of education, commerce, health care and many other aspects of our daily lives,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who attended the announcement of the funding along with Carlson, Dakota Carrier Network CEO Seth Arndorfer and Reservation Telephone Cooperative CEO Shane Hart. “As the demand on our infrastructure has grown, we have supported both federal and private investments into broadband to ensure that our state’s residents and businesses can access the high-speed service they need regardless of their ZIP code."

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.

Jenny Schlecht contributed to this report.