USDA boosts internet access for rural Fresno County

Local internet service provider Ponderosa Telephone Co. wins a USDA federal grant, loan award for broadband infrastructure development in east Fresno County

(Go Ponderosa website)
Serena Bettis
Published August 23, 2023  • 
3:00 pm

FRESNO COUNTY – Over 1,000 individuals in the Shaver Lake area of Fresno County will have improved access to high-speed internet thanks to a federal broadband funding program. 

The Ponderosa Telephone Co. received $42.5 million through a 50/50 grant-loan combination award from the ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Aug. 21. Ponderosa, which services the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and parts of the southern California desert, will use the award to connect more residents directly to their broadband network, Ponderosa General Manager Chad Rupe said.

“What we plan to do is expand our capacity to deliver those services to our customers in that (Fresno County) service territory,” Rupe said. “It gets them access to more comprehensive and available supplemental services.”

Internet delivered through broadband services involves directly connecting cables to homes and businesses. Ponderosa will “deploy a fiber-to-the-premises and hybrid-fiber-coax network” to 1,280 people, 26 businesses and 12 farms, according to the project award description.

Rupe said Ponderosa will continue work they have already been doing through a previous ReConnect award to further build up their infrastructure in their existing service areas, which includes Shaver Lake, Auberry, Tollhouse, Lakeshore, Bass Lake and other communities in east Fresno County.

Although the newly funded project will not cover their entire service area, Rupe said Ponderosa is looking to apply for more ReConnect funding in the future and keep expanding their broadband capacity in these areas.

“We’re very much invested in the local area and the local community, and it’s important to us that we provide the best opportunity for technology in the places people choose to live,” Rupe said.

According to the USDA, the Reconnect program began in 2019 “to facilitate broadband deployment in areas of rural America that currently do not have sufficient access” with the goal of boosting long-term economic development and opportunities in rural areas. 

Maria Gallegos Herrera, the California state director for USDA Rural Development, said that rural communities often lack the same infrastructure that is available in urban areas, like high-speed internet. She said the pandemic especially highlighted “the importance of having that internet access regardless of your ZIP code.”

With the type of broadband infrastructure Ponderosa is deploying through this funding, Rupe said they will be able to meet the needs of any type of customer, whether that be a small business, a business run out of someone’s home or a government entity. 

The most recent round of ReConnect grant and loan awards came from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, commonly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill/Law. The act included nearly $700 million for projects in 22 states and the Marshall Islands. 

“Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, we have a real opportunity to be able to provide and ensure rural communities — who contribute so much to our economy — are able to have that (internet) access and not be left behind,” Gallegos Herrera said. 

Eligible projects must be in rural areas that are defined by the USDA as places that are: not cities, towns or incorporated areas with a population greater than 20,000. They also cannot be urbanized areas adjacent to or contiguous with a city or town with a population greater than 50,000.

The project must also be in an area where at least 50% of households lack sufficient broadband service access — defined as download speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 20 Mbps — and the proposed network must have the ability to deliver internet speeds of 100 Mbps to all area broadband recipients at the same time.

“We do focus on trying to make sure we are serving rural areas in California … to close the gap and ensure that this access exists for our educators, our farmers, our residents and our students,” Gallegos Herrera said.

Ponderosa also works with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Affordable Connectivity Program to help households pay for their internet service, which aligns with the ReConnect program’s mission.

The entire project will take Ponderosa about five years to complete, Rupe said. This is because broadband infrastructure work requires extensive planning with engineering design work, a permitting process and the actual construction. Additionally, Rupe said that because their service area goes through federal forest lands, they have to ensure they meet both federal and state requirements. 

“We look forward to getting the project started … (and are) trying hard to move as quickly as possible to meet people’s needs,” Rupe said.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter