Hutchinson Calls For Another $250M In Federal Aid To Be Spent On Rural Internet Access

Hutchinson Calls For Another $250M In Federal Aid To Be Spent On Rural Internet Access
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson in an Arkansas Business file photo. The governor has proposed another $250 million in federal pandemic relief funds be spent on expanding high-speed internet access in rural parts of the state. (Karen E. Segrave)

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday called for spending another $250 million in federal pandemic relief funds by the end of the year on broadband deployment projects in rural parts of the state.

His proposal is subject to legislative review and contingent upon the state Department of Commerce’s Broadband Office approving projects through its Arkansas Rural Connect grant program, which was the focus of a June 7 article in Arkansas Business. Most of the program was funded by the federal CARES Act last year and is being funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act this year. 

The governor also said the Broadband Office has been instructed to hire additional staff, including a broadband consultant from the private sector — a move recommended by the General Assembly — to process grant applications and oversee projects.

Hutchinson’s announcement was included in his welcome remarks at the Arkansas Connectivity Summit, hosted by the Arkansas Farm Bureau at the Hot Springs Convention Center on Wednesday.

“It is critical that we have internet connectivity so we can have access to information. And that is the key to success. It is a key to the quality of life we desire. It improves education. It allows our schools to do more with the students,” Hutchinson said. “It makes computer coding [programs] successful … Today, we're putting more state services online. It gives those in the rural areas of our state the same access and convenience to safe services as you have in the urban areas of our state. 

“But, most importantly, it gives job opportunities and economic growth to our rural areas.”

The pandemic accelerated the work-from-anywhere trend, and rural communities that have been losing residents for decades are poised to take advantage of that. Those communities could attract remote workers from other states by offering them high-speed internet access, the governor said.

“The best hope in growth can come from connectivity, and that's what our rural areas of Arkansas desire,” he said.

Hutchinson said the state must move quickly because it will be competing with other states for resources and workers needed to install broadband infrastructure. If the additional $250 million is approved, projects funded by that money could be completed by the end of next year, he said.

He also acknowledged that the $250 million is a short-term goal and more funding will be needed later.

Hutchinson said “closing the digital divide” has been a top priority for his office and progress has been made. It is also among the strategies recommended in a July report commissioned by his Economic Recovery Task Force.

Since June 2020, broadband coverage statewide has increased to 88% from 83% and to 75% from 68% in rural Arkansas, Hutchinson said.

Though the ARC program predates COVID-19 and had $4 million in state funds to begin with, the pandemic showed the depths of the state’s digital divide. 

The governor on Wednesday said federal funds available to address that divide present a “unique opportunity.” So far, a total of $279 million has flowed into the ARC program. 

Windstream Projects

Hutchinson joined FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr and Windstream Holdings of Little Rock on Tuesday to celebrate a new initiative funded, in part, by ARC grants.

The company announced the first of $63.5 million in fiber-to-the-premises projects funded by $46.3 million in ARC grants and $17.2 million of its own capital.

The projects will bring “Kinetic by Windstream” gigabit-speed internet service to more than 15,100 households and small businesses in rural parts of seven Arkansas counties: Carroll, Faulkner, Perry, Searcy, Sevier, Van Buren and Grant counties.

The Grant County project, set to be completed in Spring 2022, will bring it to approximately 6,380 homes and businesses in rural parts of Grant County. The state is contributing $10.8 million, and Windstream is investing $7.2 million.

In 2020, the company was awarded nearly $5 million in ARC grants funded through the CARES Act, to provide fiber-to-the-premises connections and up to 1-gigabit-per-second internet service to approximately 1,600 households and small businesses Cleburne, Dallas, Montgomery and White counties.

Windstream contributed almost $1 million to those projects, which were completed in 2021.