Arkansas Rural Connect grant program announced to boost rural broadband

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,701 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan to improve broadband access to rural areas of the state took another step forward Tuesday (Aug. 6).

The governor’s office announced a $25 million state grant program called Arkansas Rural Connect (ARC). Hutchinson announced the program at a meeting of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association in Rogers. It will be part of the state’s broadband plan that was first unveiled in May, with a goal of expanding rural access to high-speed broadband by 2022.

“The long-term success of our economy will be determined by the resources our entrepreneurs have access to, and high-speed broadband is at the top of that list,” Hutchinson said. “The Arkansas Rural Connect program is an important tool that will allow the state to assist our local communities with the critical funding necessary to reach our goal of statewide connectivity. I will be asking legislative approval for the $25 million broadband plan.”

ARC will provide grants to qualifying communities of at least 500 people to deploy high-speed broadband to its residents. The high-speed broadband must have a rate of at least 25 megabits per second for download and 3 megabits per second for upload (25/3).

The Arkansas Legislative Council is able to approve $5.7 million of the $25 million this year. The balance will need to be appropriated in next year’s fiscal session.

ARC builds on the work of the Arkansas state legislature when it passed Act 198 of 2019. Before Act 198, government entities were forbidden to provide broadband to the public by the Telecommunications Regulatory Reform Act of 2013.

Act 198 gave municipalities and other public entities new options to apply for funding to deploy broadband, but at that time, no state program existed that would allow municipalities to exercise their new powers under Act 198. With the introduction of the ARC grant program, towns will now have opportunities for state funding.

“One of the first infrastructure questions potential economic development prospects ask is regarding the speed of information across the state,” Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said. “As we build out the system with help from funding through the Arkansas Rural Connect program, individuals, schools and companies will benefit and create a new environment for learning and commerce.”

Detailed rules for the ARC grant program will be developed in consultation with stakeholders in the near future, according to a release from the governor’s office. Applications could be prioritized under certain criteria including:

  • Partner with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to deploy broadband at 25/3 speeds to all residents of a community;
  • Share project costs and/or provide facilitation for the project by procuring rights-of-way for wireline deployments;
  • Have a population of at least 500 with less than 50% of the population covered by broadband speeds of 25/3;
  • Do not constrain normal internet use.

While the governor’s goal and the ARC grant focus on cities and towns, the state broadband office will also seek to promote broadband connectivity in rural areas and throughout the state. Federal grants and loans from federal agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Department of Commerce are available to fund broadband deployment. The State Broadband Office will seek to educate local leaders and to be a resource for towns, cities, and ISPs looking for funding from these federal programs.