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Lawmakers approve grants to pay for broadband studies

by Michael R. Wickline | December 19, 2020 at 3:32 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.

The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday signed off on grants to pay for studies of broadband needs in three cities, two counties, a property owners association and a Sheridan program.

The studies would be for the cities of Sherwood, Tull and Ward; Little River and Perry counties; the Eagle Ridge Property Owners Association in Pulaski County; and Kick Start Sheridan.

The Rural Broadband ID grants are available to help cities, incorporated towns, unincorporated communities and counties conduct due-diligence business studies that are required in federal grant and loan applications for funds to pay for broadband infrastructure, said Joseph Sanford, interim director of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Institute of Digital Health and Innovation. The institute administers the grant program.

In August, UAMS announced that 30 grants of up to $75,000 each are available through this program, financed with federal coronavirus relief funds.

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The pandemic, which at times has closed schools and required many to work from home, brought attention to the need to improve internet access throughout the state.

Communities can use the results of the studies to apply for funding from the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Program; the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program; the Agriculture Department's farm bill; and other federal grants or loans for broadband development programs, Sanford said in a letter dated Dec. 2 to the Legislative Council co-chairmen, Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage.

Sherwood, Tull, Ward and Perry County all had similar wording about their proposal on the cover sheet for their grant application.

Each would contract with First Electric Cooperative and its subsidiary, Connect 2 First Internet, to develop strategies for designing and deploying a fiber broadband network. They all would work with the firms to promote broadband initiatives to local businesses and residents.

All also said in their cover sheets that they would continue to look for other funding and partnership opportunities relating to broadband development.

Sherwood has a population of 31,436. Ward has a population of 5,358. Tull's is 465 and Perry County has a population of 10,455.

"Without good broadband, Sherwood cannot reasonably grow," Sherwood City Council member Beverly Williams wrote in a letter dated Nov. 12 supporting Sherwood's grant application. "In essence, we are cut off from the rest of the state/world.

"I also believe some of our residents, perhaps those who are older adults, should learn about this technology and decide whether and how to embrace the technology in their daily lives," Williams wrote. "Broadband is a utility that we just cannot live without any longer in Sherwood."

The Eagle Ridge Property Owners Association requested a grant to study the feasibility of providing commercial broadband service in western Pulaski County and adjacent areas, according to the cover sheet for its grant application.

The applicant represents a neighborhood located in unincorporated Pulaski County. The project target area has 6,152 residents.

The property owners association will depend largely on external support through Winrock International to conduct technical aspects of the project, according to its grant application.

Little River County requested its $75,000 grant to aid in the development of a fiber-to-the-home broadband network and will partner with Extreme Broadband to provide high-speed broadband, according to the cover sheet for its grant application. CT&T Engineering will serve as the engineering consultant.

The cover sheet said the grant would allow for business and feasibility studies that identify underserved areas and propose new service areas to offer high-speed broadband access to rural communities. Little River County has a population of 12,417, according to its grant application.

Kick Start Sheridan Action Plan is a strategic blueprint for the growth and development of the city of Sheridan, Grant County and the Sheridan School District over the next five years, according to its grant application.

Kick Start Sheridan will hire a consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study, and bring together internet service providers, local leaders and elected officials to work toward improving broadband availability in Grant County, according to a cover sheet for the grant application.

Kick Start Sheridan will use the Kick Start Sheridan Infrastructure Action Team as a task force to help prioritize broadband deployment and help meet the needs of businesses and the general public, the cover sheet states.

Grant County has 18,265 residents.

In November, the Legislative Council approved broadband study grants for the cities of Benton and Cabot and Arkansas, Howard and Polk counties. Cabot and those three counties were each awarded $75,000 Rural Broadband ID grants and the city of Benton was awarded a $40,000 grant.

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