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State’s Broadband Focus Should Be 110,000 Homes in Grant Gap, Study Says

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The state should focus on deploying broadband service with speeds of at least 100 megabits-per-second to 110,000 households not currently served by any federal grants, and doing that could cost up to $550 million, according to a report released Monday.

Most of that work could be funded by federal dollars and completed within the next three years, it continues.

The report is the culmination of a six-month study by Broadband Development Group of Little Rock, which was hired by the state in October to develop a comprehensive master plan for addressing the digital divide and inequitable availability of broadband service across Arkansas.

The state was criticized for hiring BDG because it was the lowest scoring but most expensive company that submitted a bid for the work. The company reviewed existing coverage maps and grant awards, hosted 300-plus community meetings in all 75 counties, surveyed more than 18,000 Arkansans and consulted 30 broadband providers to produce the report.

BDG found that 210,000 households across the state lacked access to broadband with speeds adequate for learning and working. However, 100,000 of them are covered by existing funding programs.

Broadband deployment for the other 110,000 households could come from a second round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) grants expected to be accessible this summer, the report continues. Within three years, all but 10,000 of the 110,000 households could be serviced.

The remaining 10,000, representing less than 1% of Arkansas households, are in some of the most rural and sparsely populated areas of the state, according to the report. So covering them could cost more than $200 million — 30% to 40% — of remaining federal pandemic aid, or $20,000 per household, it states.

In addition, BDG recommended:

  • Implementing competitive bidding for broadband deployment grants
  • Requiring that residents be offered affordable rates, such as $50 or less per month 
  • “Future proofing” by funding projects that deliver broadband via fiber optic cables

“We’ve already made significant progress with an aggressive approach to getting broadband deployed to rural areas of Arkansas,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a news release. “I’m appreciative of the thorough report and recommendations of BDG, and I am particularly grateful for the partnership with the Arkansas General Assembly in getting ahead of the curve with an early start to deploying rural broadband. I look forward to expedited progress as we put into operation the recommendations and continue our partnership.”

State Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston, whose department oversees the Broadband Office, added:“We now have a roadmap and a detailed plan to fill the remaining gaps of the underserved areas of our state. We look forward to continuing to partner with internet service providers (ISP’s), electric cooperatives, the Legislature and other key stakeholders, taking recommendations from this plan and updating the broadband rules.”

The Broadband Office was created by Hutchinson in July 2019. It has already awarded $386 million in grants through its Arkansas Rural Connect grant program. That program has been funded mostly by federal pandemic aid and also some state dollars.

The state Department of Commerce plans to host a meeting next month to discuss the BDG report and seek community feedback.

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