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$10.2M in grants given in state to aid broadband access

by Michael R. Wickline | August 17, 2020 at 7:23 a.m.
Cables connecting phone, cable and Internet service come out of a wall connector in the home office of Mike Loucks of Friday Harbor, Wash., in this March 2015 file photo.

One of Arkansas' broadband grant programs has handed out a total of $10.2 million, while a similar program said it has 30 grants of up to $75,000 apiece available to rural communities seeking money to make the internet connection service accessible to their residents.

The aim of the Arkansas Rural Connect program at the state Department of Commerce is to provide high-speed broadband access to rural communities in Arkansas.

The Department of Commerce is evaluating applicants with a focus on projects that can deploy broadband to qualified areas before Dec. 30, the department said in a news release.

The program's latest grant is $497,001 to the city of Cotton Plant, which will work in partnership with Hillbilly Wireless. The project will provide fixed wireless to homes in Cotton Plant, the department announced Thursday.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

So far, the Arkansas Rural Connect program has announced grants to eight communities, said Alisha Curtis, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department.

The seven other grants are:

• $2 million to CableSouth Media 3 and Lonoke.

• $2 million to CableSouth Media 3 and Hamburg.

• $1,909,264 to Pinnacle Communications and Ozark.

• $1,568,750.25 to Arkansas Telephone Co. and Fairfield.

• $1,025,692 to Magazine Telephone Co. and Magazine.

• $803,762 to Hillbilly Wireless and Cave City.

• $448,580.30 to Premier Holdings and Nashville.

This broadband grant program at the Commerce Department already has received $19.3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds recommended by the 15-member federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act steering committee, appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

It received $5.7 million in state funds last year before the coronavirus pandemic. Curtis said $4.7 million of the state funds are available for grants because the other $1 million is for administrative costs.

The steering committee recently endorsed a proposal, backed by Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, to provide $100 million more in federal coronavirus relief funds to the Arkansas Rural Connect program. The Legislative Council will consider the Department of Commerce's request for spending authority for these federal funds this week.

"As we prepare for the school year to begin, broadband is more important than ever," Hutchinson said in the Department of Commerce's news release. "Providing access points to school districts and using ARC grants to deploy broadband is a successful strategy to connect our students."

Meanwhile, the Rural Broadband I.D. grant program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences said the program has $2 million in federal funds available to help cities, incorporated towns, counties and unincorporated communities to conduct broadband due-diligence business studies.

The studies are required in federal grant and loan applications for broadband infrastructure, UAMS said in a news release. Communities can use their broadband due-diligence business studies to apply for funding from the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Bill and other federal grants and loans for broadband development programs.

The Rural Broadband I.D. program has received $2.3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds recommended by the CARES Act steering committee. The program was created through legislation sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View.

UAMS has received $324,600 of the $2.3 million in federal funds "for our costs for work on the project, including reviewing and scoring the grant proposal," said UAMS spokeswoman Leslie Taylor.

"As covid-19 changes the ways in which we work and learn remotely, high-quality infrastructure is increasingly vital to our economy, access to health care, and overall quality of life," Joseph Sandford, interim director of the UAMS Institute for Digital Health & Innovation, said in UAMS' news release.

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