State Launches Campaign to Expand Internet Access for All Using $1 Billion Grant

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Glen Howie, the state broadband director: We will do our best to make sure the $1 billion is used most effectively.

Glen Howie, the state broadband director: We will do our best to make sure the $1 billion is used most effectively. (Philip Davis)

For about six months, Sandy Martin, a member of the Carroll County Broadband Committee, has met regularly with other members to hear from area residents about the challenges they face with Internet access.

The 14-member committee learned that most chicken farmers in the county only have dial-up Internet access. They learned that in the Green Forest School District, approximately 65% ​​of students have no Internet at home. First responders told them there are elderly residents who have no way to call for help or access telehealth appointments with doctors because they don’t have internet service.

With more than $1 billion in federal funding for broadband infrastructure expected to arrive in Arkansas starting next year, the state has, for the first time, launched a comprehensive campaign to learn from communities about the challenges that continue to persist with access to reliable high-speed internet services.

Those in the broadband infrastructure industry say the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment, or BEAD program, of which Arkansas is receiving $1.024 billion, could be the last significant funding opportunity for states to build internet infrastructure in rural areas and finally bridge the country’s digital divide.

“We’ll have enough money to finish the job,” said Glen Howie, the state’s broadband director who was named to the post last summer Arkansas business.

“The #1 priority for us is to connect every underserved and underserved location in the state,” Howie said. “We have a long way to go. We have a long way to go, but we will do our best to make sure the $1 billion is used most effectively.”

According to Howie, approximately 215,000 homes and businesses in Arkansas still don’t have Internet access or need upgrades to their high-speed broadband infrastructure. He recently concluded a listening tour of the state’s 75 counties, 35 of which now have broadband committees, like the one in Carroll County, that are surveying residents for feedback on Internet access challenges.

It’s a tall order preparing a blueprint for how the $1 billion in Arkansas will be used. That plan must be submitted to the National Telecommunications & Information Association later this year. Howie said he expects a first round of public offerings for the projects to begin in 2024.

For many states, including Arkansas, a dedicated broadband planning office is a new phenomenon. For decades, tackling the digital divide has largely been a piecemeal approach, with states having to find money in general state funds for projects, Howie said.

That all changed during the time of the pandemic, as federal funding became available for projects after COVID-19 made it clear that broadband access was no longer a luxury but a public utility needed for work, l health care, education and to communicate crucial information about a public health crisis.

A kinetic worker uses a horizontal directional drill at Swifton.  The drill breaks the ground, inserts the broadband fiber and runs it horizontally 300-400 feet before lifting it again to connect to the customer.

A kinetic worker uses a horizontal directional drill at Swifton. The drill breaks the ground, inserts the broadband fiber and runs it horizontally 300-400 feet before lifting it again to connect to the customer. (Provided)

Since 2020, more than $1 billion in broadband infrastructure grants have been awarded in Arkansas, covering approximately 330,000 locations. Of these 185 projects, 103 have been completed, 60 are still under construction and 22 are about to start.

Internet access in rural areas remains an economic challenge. Building a fiber Internet infrastructure is expensive, and with a small population in areas like the Arkansas Delta, it could take years to recoup the costly upfront investment.

“The reason rural areas are so tough is actually a matter of density,” said Jeff Small, president of Kinetic, a business unit of Windstream Holdings of Little Rock that provides broadband services to residential and business customers. . “There may be areas where there are 10 households or fewer per mile of fiber that you have to build, so the cost of getting to those homes becomes very, very heavy and the ability to recoup, through a fee basis, that investment becomes challenging. ”

Since 2020, Windstream has received approximately $56 million in grants for 12 broadband expansion projects to approximately 17,000 customer locations in rural Arkansas, including Grant, Dallas and Cleburne counties. The firm is investing private capital for projects in Elaine, Dierks, Swifton, Murfreesboro, De Queen, West Fork and Tuckerman.

Identifying places that have no coverage is complex. The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband access maps are not always accurate.

It is an ongoing process to compare federal maps and state maps that may or may not include neighborhoods where projects have recently been completed or are part of different grant programs, such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, another federal program to provide Internet access to rural areas through electric cooperatives.

A cursory scan of an FCC broadband map shows large areas in southeastern Arkansas near Pine Bluff and western Arkansas around Mena that have no coverage. Granular analysis of maps can show households on one street that have internet while the next street is in red.

The Arkansas State Broadband Office is responsible for analyzing this data, then verifying its accuracy with community residents and Internet service providers. “This illustrates the complexity of this effort,” Howie said. “There are multiple federal and state programs and that makes it inherently more complicated.”

The construction of the Internet infrastructure is only one component of the project that the State Broadband Office is working on. The BEAD program also calls on states to address issues of the accessibility of Internet services and the skills needed to use technology, such as computers.

According to the State Broadband Office, approximately 274,000 Arkansas residents aged 18 to 64 lack basic digital skills. A number of nonprofits and advocacy groups dedicated to bridging the digital divide have joined the effort to devise solutions, ranging from workforce training programs to access to affordable technology

“Access to broadband engages so many stakeholders, from vendors to policymakers, local nonprofits, agriculture, small businesses, foundations and lenders,” said Hunter Goodman, a professor in the Division of University of Arkansas Agricultural Cooperative Extension Service which has been involved with broadband access throughout the state.

“It’s not just putting a wire in the ground and flipping a switch. It’s a long-term process that takes years and can be difficult for the average Arkansan who has waited so long for access to fully understand why it can’t be tomorrow.

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