Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday announced "Arkansas Rural Connect," a new $25 million grant program within the Arkansas State Broadband Office he established last month.
The goal of the program is to provide high-speed broadband to rural communities throughout Arkansas by 2022, as outlined in the State Broadband Plan released in May.
The Arkansas Rural Connect program will provide grants to qualifying communities of at least 500 people to deploy high-speed broadband to their residents. Speeds of at least 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads must be offered.
"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 in a news release. "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."
The Arkansas Legislative Council is able to approve $5.7 million this year; the balance will need to be appropriated in next year's fiscal session.
The ARC program builds on the work of the state lawmakers. On Feb. 26, they passed legislation that allows government entities to provide broadband to the public. It also gave them new funding options to apply for.
"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."
"The Arkansas Rural Connect grant seeks to close financing gaps and make the business case work for broadband projects in towns that lack adequate service," said Nathan Smith, the state's broadband manager. "Broadband is evolving into a necessity for modern life, similar to traditional utilities such as electricity, telephone service, sewage and water. This new program will make broadband available to more Arkansans."
Detailed rules for the ARC grant program will be developed, and the grant program will prioritize applications that include:
Partnering with an internet service provider;
Sharing project costs and/or providing facilitation for the project by procuring rights-of-way for wireline deployments;
Serving a population of at least 500 with less than 50 percent of the population covered by the required broadband speeds; and
Not constraining normal internet use.