$124M in ARC Grants Make Rural Broadband Feasible


$124M in ARC Grants Make Rural Broadband Feasible

Nearly a third of the $124 million available for Arkansas Rural Connect grants had been awarded as of last week, for 27 projects that will bring broadband access to thousands of homes across the state.

This $39.6 million in grants — to 14 internet service providers, 20 cities and seven counties — will guarantee reliable and faster internet access to rural communities that don’t qualify for federal grants to deploy broadband.

For providers, the grants will defray the cost of deploying broadband in communities where there are too few paying customers per mile to justify the capital required to reach them.

This access is important, community leaders told Arkansas Business, because it can attract economic development projects and allow residents to take advantage of work-from-home, virtual education and telemedicine opportunities.

To qualify for an ARC grant, a community must have a population of 500 (smaller towns can apply jointly) with no more than 80% of that population having broadband access, and at least 200 people have to be without it.

It’s important to note that broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as having speeds of at least 25 megabits-per-second for downloads and 3 megabits-per-second for uploads.

The grant recipients interviewed said their projects would bring speeds of at least 100 mbps for uploads and downloads, and some residents will be offered 1 gigabit-per-second speeds.

Providers are installing fiber optic cable and fixed wireless equipment that transmits data from a tower to an antenna on a home or business.

The first ARC grant was announced in mid-July. So many grants have been awarded in just two months because $119 million of the federal CARES Act money that Arkansas received is being used to fund all but three of the 27 grants, and CARES Act projects must be completed by Dec. 30. (The other $4.7 million is coming from the state’s general fund.)

‘Monumental Task’

Drake Smith, senior manager and director of sales at Pinnacle Telecom/Pinnacle Communications of Fort Smith, called meeting the deadline a “monumental task.” Pinnacle is using its $1.9 million ARC grant to bring broadband to 768 homes in Ozark (Franklin County).

“Normally, with a build-out of this size, it would not be uncommon to engineer for six months and then to construct for a year,” he said. “Unfortunately, we do not have the liberty to take that amount of time. In fact, we’re having to do in six months, really five and a half months, what normally would take 18 months.”

Several grantees praised the state for speediness. The state has awarded funds within days of applications being filed and is getting the grant money to applicants within a few weeks, they said.

The first grant announced was $1.6 million for Fairfield Bay in Cleburne and Van Buren counties and its partner, Arkansas Telephone Co. Mayor Linda Duncan said the company is installing 7 miles of fiber to more than 700 homes.

The community takes oversight responsibilities for an ARC grant, reporting progress to the state, but the provider gets the funds and does the work.

“The main thing for us that I’m excited about is it does open up the possibility for people to move into our city, ” Duncan said, because they will be able to work from home during and after the pandemic.

Tracie Vail, administrative assistant to Hazen’s mayor, echoed that sentiment.

“With the higher broadband, we’re hoping it’ll attract some businesses,” she said. “We’ve already got a new Love’s [gas] station here, and there’s supposed to be another convenience store going in across from Love’s, and we’ve got a discount store supposedly going in town, coming up soon.”

CableSouth Media 3 of Milan, Tennessee, which does business as Swyft Connect, has been awarded six ARC grants of $2 million each. Its city partners are Hamburg and Crossett, both in Ashley County, and the Lonoke County cities of Lonoke, Carlisle, Humnoke and England.

COO Drew Cannon said Swyft will bring broadband to 10,130 homes in those cities. Crossett Mayor Crystal Marshall called the project a game changer.

“The internet access that we have now is very inconsistent throughout the city, and we have a substantial amount of citizens who have archaic technology that is just not dependable, not reliable and just doesn’t function in a way to allow them to be able to do their business, whether it be a student working from home doing virtual learning or an employee working from home,” she said.

“It’s just a key piece of life as we know it today,” she said. “With COVID-19, it just pushed what was already an issue into just a heightened state of urgency. And we’re so grateful that our governmental leaders recognize that and made this funding available.”

‘Reverse Urbanization’

Aristotle Unified Communications LLC of Little Rock received four ARC grants totaling nearly $10.4 million. It has partnered with Hazen (Prairie County), as well as Saline, Desha and Monroe counties. (The Monroe County grant had yet to be listed on the state’s website last week so it’s not one of the first 27.)

CEO Elizabeth Bowles said the company will deploy broadband to 11,392 homes in those communities.

Lack of broadband access is “basically destroying a way of life,” she said. “It impacts economic development. It impacts education. It creates a lot of downstream consequences that honestly bringing a robust broadband solution will turn around.

“You can have reverse urbanization. You can have the reopening of shops and movie theaters and kids who go away to college and want to come back and live in these smaller communities, because that’s important.”

Windstream Holdings Inc. of Little Rock is using $4.9 million in ARC grants to deploy 90 miles of fiber to 1,561 homes in Montgomery, White and Dallas counties, spokesman Scott Morris said, noting that those numbers are estimates pending the completion of engineering.

And Comcast is using its $1.8 million grant to bring 31 miles of fiber and coaxial cable broadband to 1,575 homes and businesses in Earle (Crittenden County). This state-funded project does not have to be completed by Dec. 30.


Arkansas Rural Connect
Projects announced as of Sept. 23, 2020.

 

Grant Recipient

Location

Amount

1

Arkansas Telephone Company

Fairfield Bay

$1,568,750.25

2

Pinnacle Communications

Ozark

$1,909,264

3

CableSouth Media 3

Lonoke

$2,000,000

4

Premier Holdings

Nashville

$448,580.30

5

Hillbilly Wireless

Cave City

$803,762

6

Magazine Telephone Co.

Magazine

$1,025,692

7

Hillbilly Wireless

Cotton Plant

$497,001

8

CableSouth Media 3

Hamburg

$2,000,000

9

Comcast

Earle

$1,807,002

10

Aristotle Unified Communications

Hazen

$1,900,000

11

Central Arkansas Telephone Co.

Donaldson

$1,191,000

12

CableSouth Media 3

Crossett

$2,000,000

13

CableSouth Media 3

Carlisle

$2,000,000

14

East Arkansas Video

Palestine

$927,000

15

Hope Community TV

Emmet

$193,000

16

Premier Holdings

Center Point

$714,495

17

Windstream

Dallas County

$795,000

18

Resort TV Cable Co.

Diamondhead

$601,000

19

Aristotle Unified Communications

Saline County

$2,962,530

20

Windstream

Montgomery County

$1,645,530

21

SkyFiNet

Jackson County

$498,873

22

Windstream

White County

$2,497,795

23

Premier Holdings

Hempstead County

$1,080,495.29

24

CableSouth Media 3

Humnoke

$2,000,000

25

SkyFiNet

Corning

$1,992,036

26

CableSouth Media 3

England

$2,000,000

27

Aristotle

Desha County

$2,550,877

Source: arkansas.gov