Arkansas lawmakers on Thursday approved spending on broadband projects that had been put on hold earlier in the legislative session, allotting $53.3 million in federal American Rescue Plan cash for eight projects, including seven involving the state’s electric cooperatives.
The Joint Budget Committee of the General Assembly gave final legislative approval to a state Department of Commerce plan to spend the money on the eight broadband grants, as well as $2 million to cover broadband administrative costs.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee, had told Arkansas Business earlier this month that the projects were on course for approval, even though a legislative subcommittee put the Commerce request on hold Jan. 25.
At the time, it cited an executive order by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders that abolished a steering panel to direct the funds appointed by her predecessor, Asa Hutchinson. That panel was the Arkansas American Rescue Plan Steering Committee.
The grants involve rural broadband build-outs in Ashley, Baxter, Chicot, Clark, Columbia, Hot Spring, Logan and Lonoke counties.
Seven of the eight are projects involving Diamond State Network, a new wholesale broadband provider armed with a $1.8 billion investment in fiber infrastructure by the state’s cooperatives. The network is looking to cover 72 of the state’s 75 counties with 50,000 miles of fiber lines through 13 of Arkansas’ distribution cooperatives or their subsidiaries.
The largest grant is $14.2 million dedicated to a $19.6 million broadband endeavor in Logan County by Wave Rural Connect, a subsidiary of Arkansas Valley Electric, and Cox Communication LLC. Next are a $10.9 million outlay for a $14.7 million Lonoke County project by Connect2First Internet of Jacksonville, a subsidiary of First Electric Cooperative, and a $6.6 million grant to Ashley-Chicot Electric for an $8.8 million project.
The only affected project without cooperative involvement was a $7.9 million grant to CableSouth Media LLC of Crossett for a $10.7 million build-out in Ashley County.
The Cox Communications a WAVE Rural Connect project looks to provide high-speed internet to 1,700 homes in rural Logan County. Engineering, design and permit work for the fiber network is moving forward.
The other projects include a $7.9 million grant for CableSouth Media LLC’s $10.7 million project in Ashley County; $6.6 million for Ashley-Chicot Electric Cooperative’s $8.8 million build-out in Chicot County; a $5.2 million grant to Four States Fiber for an $8 million Columbia County project; a $4.5 million outlay to South Central Connect LLC and Central Arkansas Telephone Cooperative Inc. for a $6.1 million Hot Spring County project; a $2.1 million grant to NEXT Powered by NAFC for a $2.9 million build-out in Baxter County; and a $1.6 million outlay to South Central Connect LLC for a project with a $2.2 million price tag in Clark County.
According to state records, the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grants have awarded $550 million in federal and state money for the grants.