Broadband report: State’s last underserved areas could be covered for up to $550 million

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 797 views 

Arkansas has 210,000 households underserved by broadband services, but 100,000 of them are being addressed by federal and state programs. Using federal funding, the remaining 110,000 households could be reached at a cost of up to $550 million.

The numbers come from a report by Broadband Development Group (BDG), a consultant hired last October to conduct a six-month statewide study to help the state develop a comprehensive master plan to address broadband inequality. Underserved households are defined as those with less than 100 megabits per second access.

BDG hosted more than 300 community meetings in all 75 counties and received more than 18,000 surveys. It consulted with nearly 30 broadband providers.

A map provided in the executive summary shows where broadband is available or where grants have been awarded. Left out are much of north-central Arkansas, areas in western Arkansas, areas along the Mississippi River, and other areas dotted throughout the rest of the state.

The report says 110,000 households are not being addressed by any federal programs, and up to $550 million would be needed to reach them. That money can come from the American Rescue Plan Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act programs. Of those, 100,000 households can be reached for between $254 million and $358 million within three years.

The last 10,000 households, many of them in the most rural and sparsely populated areas of Arkansas, would require more than $200 million, or about $20,000 for every household, the report said.

Most pending grants come from the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Under federal rules, states cannot make awards to other applicants. The report said 31,000 of the 100,000 households with pending coverage are covered under grants to fixed wireless access or low earth orbit satellite providers, which raises concerns about speed, reliability, and the ability of bid recipients to deliver.

“Federal rules prohibit further funding to serve these locations,” the report’s executive summary said. “We think there is significant risk that these households will not be served in a timely or technologically sufficient manner.”

The State Broadband office’s Arkansas Rural Connect (ARC) grant has awarded $386 million in broadband grants, according to a press release from the governor’s office. Gov. Asa Hutchinson created the program in July 2019. The report recommends instituting competitive bidding for grants. It says awards should go to proven firms.

The report also recommends that the state install fiber optics technology so speeds will keep up with future needs. It notes that engineer Jakob Nielsen has found that over the past 30 years, broadband speeds have increased about 50% annually, or 57 times over a decade, a finding known as “Nielsen’s Law.” With the Federal Communications Commission saying families need up to 80 Mbps currently, the BDG report recommends at least 100 Mbps download speed and at least 20 Mbps upload speed.

It recommends broadband installation support the ability to upgrade speeds 50% per year.

“I’m pleased to see the state broadband report and recommendations from Broadband Development Group,” Hutchinson said in a press release. “We’ve already made significant progress with an aggressive approach to getting broadband deployed to rural areas of Arkansas. I’m appreciative of the thorough report and recommendations of BDG, and I am particularly grateful for the partnership with the Arkansas General Assembly in getting ahead of the curve with an early start to deploying rural broadband. I look forward to expedited progress as we put into operation the recommendations and continue our partnership.”