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Beebe, Pulaski County get broadband-study grants

by Michael R. Wickline | February 11, 2021 at 4:00 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 Legislature's Joint Budget Committee signed off Wednesday on rural broadband grants of $75,000 to the city of Beebe and $41,035 to Pulaski County to help finance studies required to obtain federal broadband funds.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Institute for Digital Health & Innovation technical review committee completed a thorough evaluation of the applications submitted, said institute interim director Dr. Joseph Sanford Jr.

The grants are available to help cities, incorporated towns, counties and unincorporated communities conduct broadband due-diligence business studies that are required in federal grant and loan applications for broadband infrastructure, Sanford said in a letter to the committee's co-chairmen, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, and Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia.

The Beebe study will focus on the feasibility of providing commercial broadband service in and around the White County city, according to the grant application.

"The area needs broadband to carry out all the same tasks that most other citizens in larger, more densely populated areas enjoy," according to Beebe's grant application. "Residents need to take advantage of the technological advances made over the past few years, so we can participate in matters such as videoconferencing, remote education, entertainment, remote work sites, and e-commerce just like other citizens in Arkansas."

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

The service area will be a section around Beebe covered by U.S. Census Tract 712. That service area will be centered on Beebe with a southern boundary of Cypress Bayou, a western boundary of about White County Road 121, a northern boundary of about Bull Creek, and an eastern boundary near Bull Creek and White County Road 56 and includes large unincorporated rural areas, according to Beebe's grant application. The service area includes about 3,957 single-family homes, 221 multifamily units, 874 businesses and has a population of 10,084.

The city has no paid employees to conduct this study and will depend largely on a consultant to conduct technical aspects of the project, its grant application states.

The Pulaski County study will focus on the area covered by U.S. Census Tracts 40.01 and 40.05, including College Station, Sweet Home, Woodson and Hensley with has a population of 6,059, according to the grant application.

About 10% of rural areas in Pulaski County can access residential broadband providers, and the Pulaski County government "recognizes the need for a broadband solution especially now due to many students enrolled in virtual learning due to the covid-19 pandemic," according to the county's grant application.

"To satisfy the needs of these communities, Pulaski County would like to do a feasibility study [to] see if broadband services can be installed into homes that currently do not have an option for this service," it reads.

Pulaski County does not have employees to conduct technical aspects of the project, but it has a contract with Broadband Development Group LLC to study the technologies available for delivering broadband to southern Pulaski County, according to the grant application.

In August, UAMS announced that 30 grants, up to $75,000 each, are available through the Rural Broadband I.D. grant program, financed with federal coronavirus relief funds.

So far, the grant program has awarded $946,035, said Leslie Taylor, a spokeswoman at UAMS.

"We have $1,053,965 in unspent funds," Taylor said.

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