Goal set to rev up rural internet expansion

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday set a goal for the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband program to award $250 million more in grants financed with federal American Rescue Plan funds by the end of this year.

"We have to act with a sense of urgency," the Republican governor said at the Arkansas Farm Bureau's Arkansas Connectivity Summit in Hot Springs. "We are in a race for resources ... and in a race against time."

The state's rural communities deserve and need high-speed broadband service at affordable costs, Hutchinson said.

Arkansas' private internet service providers need help from state government with accelerated grant funding to provide an incentive to leverage their investment dollars and allow them to move quickly to provide broadband service to rural areas that wouldn't get service without the financial support from state government, he said.

"The best way to get their confidence and their financial commitment is for them to see the rural grant program funded with another $250 million," Hutchinson said. "Now over time, hopefully it will be much more than that. But we need to look at the short term, and I urge a specific goal and that is to award $250 million before the end of the year."

So far, the state has awarded $279 million in broadband grants to partnerships of cities and counties and internet service providers through the Arkansas Rural Connect program, he said.

"Our legislators here have been tremendous partners in this," Hutchinson said. "They've moved these projects out. We need to continue that, accelerate that, and I hope that we can mutually have that goal of getting $250 million more out contracted before the end of the year through our Rural Connect program."

The approval of the American Rescue Plan steering committee and the Legislative Council will be required before the Rural Connect program could award the additional money.

High-speed broadband service in rural areas is critical for education, economic development and quality of life, Hutchinson said.

Strategic plan

Senate Education Committee chairwoman Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said Hutchinson's goal "is an ambitious proposal and underscores the need for a statewide strategic plan that includes gathering real data from the grassroots level, from internet providers, all agencies and stakeholders to drive the state's decisions.

"Unfortunately the [Federal Communications Commission] maps are inaccurate, yet we cannot wait for these maps to be completed," she said in a written statement. "We must engage at the state level aggressively to gather the data, to develop the strategy so we can make informed decisions on our spend. We must have maximum coordination at all levels -- from the city, county, state, legislative, executive, stakeholders, even neighborhood associations, so we have a strategic and smart spend on infrastructure, support and access." Irvin said the state may need to retool its grant programs and increase data collection through new legislation to ensure the best information for its strategic plan.

"We also need to support a workforce technician program through our community colleges as soon as possible, and perhaps invest in the fiber ring the Electric Cooperatives [of Arkansas] are building," she said. "I think we are all ambitious in making Arkansas number one in connectivity for our citizens. It's exciting and I am ready to work hand in hand with the Governor to accomplish this goal."

A Legislative Council co-chairman, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, said in an interview that he has no problem authorizing the additional money for broadband grants as long as the funds are spent correctly.

He said he wants to learn more from a broadband consultant that the state plans to hire about how to provide incentives to internet service providers to provide high-speed broadband service to rural areas in which the mailboxes are several miles apart, particularly in eastern Arkansas and in the mountainous areas of Northwest Arkansas.

That's "the hurdle we are having to jump right now," Wardlaw said.

The rural areas where people live far apart are not lucrative for internet service providers, he said.

In his remarks at the Arkansas Connectivity Summit, Hutchinson said he has told the broadband office at the Department of Commerce to increase its staff and resources to provide support and oversight of the Rural Connect grant projects.

"In other words, Steven Porch needs help," Hutchinson said, referring to Rural Connect's executive broadband manager and the chief legal counsel at the Department of Commerce.

He said the state also has expanded its contract with Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health to support the work of the broadband office.

Consultant search

Hutchinson said the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Institute for Digital Health & Innovation provides great technical support and grant program assistance, but "we need in-house expertise from a broadband consultant."

"I have heard this loud and clear from our legislative partners," he said. "It was recommended by the General Assembly and, let me assure you , we have started the process to bring one of those private sector consultant contractors on board."

Hutchinson said the consultant would coordinate various broadband grant programs, find where there are gaps and "make sure we are getting it right." Afterward, he said no decision has been made yet on which company will get the contract.

Cost Quest Associates, Deloitte Consulting LLP and Broadband Development Group LLC submitted proposals to be the consultant, according to Department of Transformation and Shared Services spokeswoman Alex Johnston.

On Thursday, the state's American Rescue Plan steering committee was scheduled to consider a $4 million request from Commerce Secretary Mike Preston to hire a consultant.

In March, President Joe Biden signed into law the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act that is designed to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, Hutchinson appointed the 15-member steering committee to recommend the best uses of the $1.57 billion federal funds for Arkansas.

If the state issued $250 million more in broadband contracts by the end of this year, most of the projects would be completed by the end of 2022, Hutchinson said.

The $279 million in grants awarded so far will provide high-speed internet service to almost 90,000 households that include about 213,000 people when all that work is completed, he said.

The 132 projects have been financed with $157.5 million in American Rescue Plan funds, $118.1 million in federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds and $4 million in state funds, according to state records.

These grants will increase broadband coverage from 83% in June of last year to 88% of the state and connectivity from 68% to 75% in rural areas, the governor said.

"That is a great success story, but that means we have a long ways to go," Hutchinson said.

The state now has access to the highest level of federal funding ever to provide high-speed internet service to rural communities after a year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

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