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At the end of 2019, Congress passed the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act, fixing a tax law change that threatened to raise rates and delay the expansion of broadband for rural cooperative members across the country.
Passage of the RURAL Act ensures that cooperatives can accept federal funds for broadband deployment, disaster relief, and other efforts without risking their nonprofit tax exempt status. A change in the 2017 tax law would have labeled these funds as revenue for the first time, potentially causing co-ops to exceed the allowable percentage of non-member income they must maintain to remain tax exempt.
After Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Rob Portman(R-Ohio) and Representatives Adrian Smith (R-) and Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) introduced the bipartisan bill in April, it attracted 55 additional cosponsors in the Senate and more than 300 in the House. It was eventually incorporated into the consolidated appropriations act and signed into law in December.
“Obstacles From the Federal Government”
We described the possible impact of the 2017 tax law change on rural cooperatives over a year ago, when Senator Smith first brought the issue to our attention.
Failure to remedy it would have forced some co-ops to choose between continuing with desperately needed broadband and disaster recovery projects and increasing their members’ rates. Northwestern Electric Cooperative CEO Tyson Littau described the difficulty of that decision to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA):
Do we rebuild and try to strengthen our distribution system and pay the taxes, or do we delay the mitigation project that would improve 1,200 miles of line throughout our territory? I think we have a responsibility to the membership to improve the system for the future.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently awarded a $2.85 million grant to Forked Deer Electric Cooperative headquartered in Halls, Tennessee, and $9.75 million to Orangeburg County, South Carolina to develop broadband infrastructure. The awardees will use the ReConnect grants to construct or expand existing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access to thousands of households, critical community facilities, and educational facilities.
A Reconnect Primer
In 2019, Congress allocated $600 million for the ReConnect Program to help expand high-quality Internet access to rural America. Applicants can apply for a 100 percent grant, 100 percent loan, or a grant-loan combination. The ReConnect Program provides funding to allow for-profit companies, rural cooperatives, local governments, and tribes to deploy broadband infrastructure under specific guidelines. The service area for qualified applicants must be rural communities with 90 - 100 percent of the population considered "underserved," defined as Internet access speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload or lower.
As we reported in September, more than half of the applications submitted came from cooperatives and local governments.
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Orangeburg County was awarded federal stimulus funds in 2010 and added around $4 million of their own money for rural broadband projects. Shortly following the stimulus package award, the state legislature enacted a law discouraging simlar local investment. The law requires local governments to charge rates for broadband Internet services similar rates to those of private companies, even if service could be provided at a lower cost. This law effectively limits local broadband authority and discourages communities from developing publicly owned networks.