Windstream will begin construction this month on the first of seven fiber broadband expansion projects that will deliver gigabit-speed internet service to more than 15,100 rural households and small businesses in seven Arkansas counties, the company announced Tuesday (Sept. 7) at Sheridan High School.
The $63.5 million fiber projects are being funded by $46.3 million in state grants administered by the Arkansas Rural Connect Broadband Program. The money came from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Windstream is investing $17.2 million.
The largest project will be in Grant County, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said at the announcement. There, 6,380 homes and small businesses will be served. The state is contributing $10.8 million while Windstream is investing $7.2 million. Construction there begins this month and is expected to be completed next spring.
Other counties being served are Carroll, Faulkner, Perry, Searcy, Sevier and Van Buren counties.
Hutchinson said the state has invested more than $279 million into the Rural Connect program through state dollars, the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act. The latter two were federal programs passed since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. That money is providing high-speed internet to 89,000 households and more than 213,000 Arkansans.
He said the broadband expansion would provide more access to information, more opportunities for young people, and jobs.
“As I have said, you can run the world from your front porch in small-town Arkansas if you have access to high-speed internet and you have the skills that we are teaching through our computer science initiative,” he said.
That initiative has required all high schools to offer a computer science course and now requires high school students to take such a course in order to graduate.
Windstream President and CEO Tony Thomas said the project would help close the digital divide by addressing both access and affordability. He said Windstream is investing $2 billion over the next five years to build out 1 gig infrastructure across its 18-state footprint. He said public-private partnerships at the federal, state and local level are necessary in places like Grant County.
Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr said the FCC has allocated $420 million for Arkansas over the next 10 years to bridge the digital divide for 200,000 homes and businesses.
UPDATE: On Wednesday at a Connectivity Summit sponsored by the Arkansas Farm Bureau in Hot Springs, Gov. Hutchinson said he wanted the legislature to approve $250 million in new rural broadband funding contracts by the end of the year. The governor said his goal was to have the communities in which the quarter of a billion dollars would be invested to be benefitting from high-speed Internet by the end of 2022.