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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's program aimed at expanding high-speed broadband service to rural communities in Arkansas will begin accepting grant applications through Aug. 15, the state Department of Commerce said Monday.

The program is called Arkansas Rural Connect.

Arkansas lags behind many other states in broadband access, a problem that has been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.

The high-speed broadband must be at a speed of at least 25 megabits per second for download and 3 megabits per second for upload, according to the state Department of Commerce. That's fast enough to download a song in a second, or a two-hour movie in about 10 minutes. Allowable projects include deploying broadband into areas that completely lack service or upgrading areas that have poor service.

"Broadband is the greater equalizer for competing on a global scale," Hutchinson said Monday in a news release issued by the Department of Commerce.

"Our students in rural Arkansas can access the same information as students from metropolitan [areas] across the world," he said.

Last May, Hutchinson set a goal of expanding access to high-speed broadband to all communities in the state with more than 500 people by 2020.

In August, the Arkansas Legislative Council approved the Republican governor's request to transfer $5.7 million out of the state's restricted reserve fund to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to provide startup funding for the Arkansas Rural Connect program.

The council approved rules for the program in February, after the state's broadband office agreed to rework the program to make both counties and unincorporated communities eligible to co-apply for grants.

Applicants for grants may include cities, counties and unincorporated communities with internet service providers. Communities are eligible if they have at least 500 in population and at least 200 of that population lacking broadband coverage and no more than 80% served. If a community does not meet the criteria, the community may partner with surrounding communities that do.

The grants would reimburse costs for broadband deployment, such as rental, depreciation and equipment costs; wages; engineering costs; legal costs; and installation and testing costs.

Applications can be found at www.arkansasedc.com/arc.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission has a $250,000 contract with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Institute for Digital Health and Innovation from March 1 through the end of December to review 34 applications for the Arkansas Rural Connect program.

"With the COVID-19 crisis, broadband has become even more of a necessity," Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said in the news release.

"Telemedicine, distance education, and telework all require a strong broadband connection. The pandemic has magnified the need for the Governor's program and it is timely and essential for sustaining Arkansas in this difficult time," he said.

In the fiscal session that adjourned Friday, the Legislature created a another broadband grant program that Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, and Hutchinson called complementary to the governor's program.

The newest program has spending authority of $2 million in fiscal 2021, which starts July 1, as part of UAMS' appropriation. The program is part of UAMS' Institute for Digital Health and Innovation.

Irvin has said she will be working to find funding for the newest program.

Act 139 of 2020 creates the Rural Broadband I.D. Expenses Trust Fund to be used for one-time grants to local entities working with internet service providers to defray expenses for broadband due-diligence business studies. Those studies would be done for prospective applicants for funding from federal broadband programs.

Metro on 04/28/2020

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