Broadband in Arkansas

By Josh Curtis
AAC Governmental Affairs Director

What is broadband? It is high-capacity transmission technologies that transmit data, voice, and video across long distances at high speeds. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the definition of broadband internet is a minimum of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. Broadband provides high speed internet access via multiple types of technologies including fibser optics, wireless, cable, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), and satellite. Fiber Optics is the most sought-after technology, but it can be the most expensive and may take longer to deploy. Fiber carries lots of data using pulses of light through strands of fiber at the fastest speeds. Wireless broadband connects you to the internet using radio signals instead of cables. This is commonly called wireless internet, broadband wireless, or cellular internet, which can be either fixed or mobile. Cable delivers the internet over the same coaxial cables that connect to your TV set. DSL also uses cables, but the data is transmitted over traditional copper lines. Satellite is becoming more popular and is often the best option in rural Arkansas because satellites in space provide connectivity. Whether its cost, speed, or deployment, each one of these technologies has pros and cons.

Why do counties need to be educated on broadband and the different technologies that deliver connectivity? Counties play a huge role in deciding whether an Internet Service Provider (ISP) can apply for grants and do work in their county. Every grant application that goes before the Arkansas Department of Commerce Broadband Office must be signed by a county judge or a mayor. In the beginning, judges would sign just about any application that came across their desk because they were excited to get more broadband access for their county. Since we have plenty of examples now of work performed by ISPs, we can be more critical in reviewing proposed applications. Counties can ask more questions and check references. Most of the time a judge wouldn’t award a project without reviewing previous work performed by a new contractor. This now can become the practice when reviewing broadband applications. We encourage counties to ask about cost to their constituents. Will there be a low-cost option? Will they allow houses to connect for free? One complaint we have heard from judges is ISP contractors tearing up roadways and busting pipes. You can ask about all this and do your due diligence before signing off on an application.

Since 2019 the Arkansas Rural Connect program has approved over 160 grants totaling $392,924,037.15 for broadband deployment. That’s not a typo. Yes, almost $400 million for ISPs to connect Arkansans. The bulk of this money — $274,455,914.90 — has come from the first tranche of the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Another $113,960,590.43 has come from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) and yet another $4,507,531.82 has come from the state. As you can see this has been a top priority for the Governor and the legislature.

“This broadband initiative should make the constituents of Arkansas extremely proud in how their government has operated together,” said state Sen. Jimmy Hickey. “The Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch have worked together to provide an efficient avenue to provide service across a broad area of the entire state of Arkansas.”

Broadband Development Group (BDG) was hired in October 2021, to conduct a six-month, statewide study to develop a comprehensive master plan; to determine the true state of broadband coverage in Arkansas; and to find the most efficient way to fund deployment to those remaining underserved. BDG CEO Lou McAlister and his team hosted a series of more than 300 community meetings in all 75 counties and received more than 18,000 surveys from residents across the state. Lou even met with us here at the AAC and came to speak at the CJAA winter meeting.

“Now is a critical time for our state to close the digital divide,” said state Rep. Matthew Shepherd, Speaker of the House. “The legislature invested in this report to develop a strategic plan moving forward. We want to see Arkansans not only connected, but operating at speeds necessary for work and education in years to come.”

The report addresses the key deliverables required by the contract: assessing available broadband assets in the state; mapping out where the broadband gap exists in the state; calculating the budget needed to bridge the gap; and recommending improvements to the Arkansas Rural Connect grant program. According to its findings, Arkansas currently has 110,000 underserved households.

“I’m pleased to see the state broadband report and recommendations from Broadband Development Group,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “We’ve already made significant progress with an aggressive approach to getting broadband deployed to rural areas of Arkansas. 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.”

BDG corrected the FCC map by identifying about 210,000 households that are currently covered by the minimum FCC standard. It will cost an estimated $500 million to serve the remaining 110,000 households. Although some say this is a conservative amount, it would take 40 percent of those funds to cover the last 10,000 households. These 10,000 households are some of the most remote places in Arkansas and would cost about $20,000 each to service.

However, 31,000 of the households are currently covered under Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grants to wireless providers, of which BDG has concerns. Federal rules prohibit further funding to serve these locations. They think there is significant risk that these households will not be served in a timely or technologically sufficient manner. What this means is some of these homes are covered under Starlink, the SpaceX project that utilizes satellites to deliver broadband. Or they could be on the list of a provider that won the auction for service but may take six years for deployment. The state would like to have everyone served in a timelier fashion.

The Broadband Office will be asking the legislature for at least $150 million for the next round of grants from the second tranche of ARP. Additional funding will come from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Each state gets $100 million, but we have been told that Arkansas could get as much as $500 million from this act Congress recently approved. The broadband office is also anticipating up to $90 million from the Coronavirus Capital Projects fund that can be used for broadband development. All these buckets of money have different restrictions, some more flexible than others. The ARP money for the next round of grants will be specifically for fiber projects. Fiber technology gives us the ability in the future to ramp up speeds. The IIJA dollars are a little more flexible and could possibly be used for wireless or fixed wireless where the terrain isn’t optimal for putting fiber in the ground.

January 15 was the deadline for the last round of applications. The Rural Connect program has been largely a success but there areas for improvement Now that they have a master plan from BDG the Broadband office plans to adjust the rules for the next round of grants. One change we anticipate seeing is a minimum of 25 percent matching funding. This match doesn’t have to come from cities or counties, but it can. We will continue monitoring the process and keep you all informed.

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