The state will receive $100 million in federal funding “right off the bat” for broadband deployment through the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed on Nov. 15.
That’s the word from Steven Porch of the Arkansas Department of Commerce’s Broadband Office. Porch said the $100 million is each state’s initial slice of the $65 billion total that the bill includes for improving broadband access and affordability nationwide.
Porch said agencies like his are awaiting further guidance on how to spend the money from the U.S. Department of Commerce, guidance that is set to be out within six months of the bill’s approval.
The Federal Communications Commission must also redraw maps of areas most lacking in access across the country, which will direct where the rest of the $65 billion will go, Porch said.
“It’s going to really open up a lot of doors because … there’s going to be a strong focus on those unserved areas in Arkansas,” Porch said. “It’s going to be something that’s really going to help bridge this digital divide.”
Porch said his office would be aggressive in bringing broadband access to areas of Arkansas that don’t have it, particularly “lightly populated” areas.
Once the FCC maps are finished, states will be able to challenge them but must provide evidence to back up any claim that an area the map indicates is served isn’t actually served, he said. Many broadband advocates have previously complained about the accuracy of the FCC maps, but Porch believes the challenge process will improve accuracy.
Porch said Arkansas has already made progress extending broadband service; it is now ranked 46th in fiber broadband infrastructure, up from 49th less than two years ago, he said.
Porch’s office launched the Arkansas Rural Connect grant program in 2019, and has awarded close to $400 million for broadband deployment projects. The funding came from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security (CARES) Act and its successor, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Porch said his office could receive another infusion of ARPA funds, fodder for more grants, in June.