Pope County is poised to benefit from a $30.2 million investment in fiber internet to the home, funded in part by federal pandemic aid dollars through the state-run Arkansas Rural Connect grant program.
Ritter Communications has been awarded two ARC grants totaling $12.7 million to bring fiber broadband service to the county, County Judge Ben Cross announced Friday. Ritter is seeking two other grants to fund its $24 million deployment project there, and Cross said in a news release that he is optimistic about those being awarded by this summer.
In addition, Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative and Cross have signed a collaborative agreement seeking $2.2 million in grant funding for the co-op’s nearly $6.2 million Wave Rural Connect program to provide fiber to the home for its customers.
Cross attributed the recent progress to a year of intensive study that proves the county is underserved and therefore eligible for grant funding. The study involved surveying residents throughout unincorporated areas of the county about their household’s current internet service, or lack thereof. Cross said Friday that residents should continue to complete those surveys as they arrive.
For its project, Ritter plans to roll out service within two years of construction beginning. Anticipated speeds and monthly prices are 1-gigabit-per-second for $80; 500 megabits per second for $70; and 200 mbps for $60, according to the release.
Bob Mouser, vice president and general manager of Hometown Services for Ritter, told Arkansas Business the company is excited about the grants that make it possible for the company to install fiber where it otherwise would not make good business sense i.e. sparsley populated areas where neighbors live several miles apart.
"We've had an enterprise expansion going on for a number of years now including in Russellville, where we're doing business services and these two grants in Pope County let us extend our footprint on the residential side to the west a little bit more," he said.
“With Covid and everybody trying to learn from home and work from home, church from home and everything else from home, we've really made a big, big change in our business trying to help out the digital divide and bring fiber out in the rural areas of Arkansas,” Mouser added.
Cross said in a recent interview, “When you are looking at the fact that we have Arkansas Tech University, and when those students go into remote learning ... if you get outside of what I call the I-40 corridor through Pope County, you don't have adequate access to any kind of internet. So this will prove so beneficial in the future.”
He also praised Ritter in that interview. “I dealt with Ritter when I first took office, to bring fiber optic into all county governmental buildings. And, once we saw the results of that, I just knew they were a good, good partner," he said. "They were able to bring fiber optic optic service into places in the county where we have governmental buildings that previously nobody said could be done.”