Arkansas eying federal funds for broadband expansion

(The Center Square) - About $500 million is needed to cover Arkansas households lacking adequate broadband access, according to a report released by a company hired to study internet availability across the state.

The study from the Broadband Development Group (BDG) found Arkansas is making progress in expanding internet access. The Federal Communications Commission identified 210,000 household without adequate internet access in a 2020 report. That number has been whittled down to 110,000 as about 100,000 are covered by the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grant, according to the report released Monday.

State officials should focus on these 110,000 and use federal funds from sources including the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) grants, BDG said in its report.

"If we tap into forthcoming federal funds in the range of $254 to $358 million, we should be able to reduce the remaining 110,000 households down to about 10,000 underserved households within three years," BDG said. "The final 10,000 homes, which represents less than 1% (0.83%) of Arkansas households, however, would be the toughest barrier to overcome since many of these homes are in some of the most rural and sparsely populated areas of the state."

Reaching all households with adequate internet access would cost an estimated $20,000 per household.

The state needs to require broadband access remain affordable at about $50 a month or less, BDG said in the report.

BDG also recommended "future proofing" with fiber optics technology so the state does not fall behind in broadband access in the future.

The report, commissioned by the state in October, is based on more than 300 community meetings and 18,000 surveys received from residents across that state, according to a news release from Gov. Asa Hutchinson's office.

Hutchinson established the State Broadband Office in 2019 to tackle the lack of internet in some areas of Arkansas. That office, which is overseen by the Department of Commerce, has doled out $386 million through the Arkansas Rural Connect grant program, which was also established in 2019, according to the news release. The report acknowledges the state's progress since that time, said Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston.

The Department of Commerce will hold a meeting next month to discuss the findings, according to the news release.

Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said now is the time for the state to "close the digital divide."

"The legislature invested in this report to develop a strategic plan moving forward," Shepherd said. "We want to see Arkansans not only connected but operating at speeds necessary for work and education in years to come.”

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