Arkansas to receive $5.8 million grant to expand internet access

Arkansas to receive $5.8 million grant to expand internet access

Arkansas will receive a $5.8 million grant to expand Internet access, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced today in a news release.

The grant is the first tranche of federal broadband expansion dollars the state will receive under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that Congress passed last November. Under the law, each state will receive a minimum of $100 million to expand broadband access. State officials will use the bulk of the $5.8 million grant to identify internet access gaps, hire more staff at the National Broadband Office, and devise a plan to reduce the digital literacy and increase economic growth.

“For the past eight years, connecting Arkansans and using broadband has been a top priority of my administration,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a news release. “Broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessary infrastructure for our economy to grow, for our students to stay educated, and for all citizens to carry out their daily tasks, whether keep in touch with friends and family or pay bills.”

The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill, aims to modernize the country’s roads, bridges and airports as well as d infrastructure, allocated $42.45 billion in funding to expand broadband access. Under the bill, each state will receive a minimum of $100 million for broadband expansion, although some states could receive significantly more.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is to announce how much money each state will receive by June 30.

The FCC recently released a National Broadband Internet Access Map, which will be used to determine how much funding each state will receive. The map, considered a pre-production draft, has yet to be reviewed by officials in all 50 states.

As part of the $5.8 million grant, $844,000 will be set aside for equity programs to help the state engage with non-English speaking residents and collect data on digital inequalities in Arkansas.

“Today marks an important milestone for the State of Arkansas as we continue our efforts to connect the unconnected, prioritize broadband accessibility, and ensure digital opportunity for all Arkansas,” said Glen Howie, director of the Arkansas State Broadband Office, in a press release. . “With the approval of these planning funds, the state can now begin the process of developing innovative solutions that will have lasting positive impacts in education, healthcare, small business and agriculture for generations. coming.”

In Arkansas, primarily in rural communities, approximately 110,000 homes are underserved with broadband access, defined as less than 100+Mbps. In a largely rural state, lack of broadband access can have major consequences.

When it comes to internet access, rural communities tend to lag behind suburbs and cities, as telecom companies are less likely to invest in building infrastructure in low-power locations. population density. In a largely rural state like Arkansas, lack of high-speed internet access can limit economic growth and quality of life for residents.

“Communities without universal broadband access are very unlikely to see growth,” said Evan Feinman, director of the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, which reports to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. “When I was talking to companies [looking to expand]they weren’t interested in communities without universal broadband access.”

According to a map from the Arkansas Department of Commerce, much of eastern Arkansas does not have high-speed internet access. Additionally, many residents living just outside of population centers such as Texarkana, El Dorado, Batesville, and Little Rock do not have access to high-speed connectivity.

The program will operate as a private-public partnership where the federal government will contribute most funds for the construction of infrastructure, such as fiber optic cables, in rural communities. In theory, private internet service providers will contribute 25% of project funding, but the exact amount will vary depending on the project.

“The difference is how many paying customers you can get [in order] to get a return on capital,” Feinman said in an interview. “In a rural community [the return on investment] may be very low or may be negative.”

A report from the Arkansas House of Representatives estimated that it would cost $500 million to fully extend fast internet connections to households in the state. Arkansas has already received hundreds of millions from the two federal pandemic stimulus laws — the CARES and American Rescue Plan acts — to expand broadband access across the state.

Last week, a state panel approved a request from the Arkansas Department of Commerce for an additional $158 million in federal funds for broadband projects. The Arkansas Rural Connect grant program, which allocates federal funds for broadband, has distributed $396.5 million in grants, according to Chelsea O’Kelley, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

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