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State finds way to pinpoint best spots for broadband expansion

by Andrew Moreau | January 24, 2021 at 2:21 a.m.

As state officials await word on federal broadband funding for 2021, Arkansas has developed a mapping tool to pinpoint towns and communities that would be ideal for service expansions this year.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the broadband mapping initiative to make it easier for consumers and businesses to find high-speed service providers in the state and to help state officials locate broadband expansion opportunities.

"This project puts Arkansas on the cutting edge of broadband mapping nationally," Gov. Hutchinson said in announcing the mapping service, which is available at arkansas.vetro.io.

Release of the map followed a year of extensive efforts to expand broadband service across Arkansas.

Broadband mapping provided by other public agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission are spotty and lack details in outlining coverage areas, state officials say.

The new Arkansas map allows users to put in an address to find nearby coverage. The map shows the number of providers in the area, the broadband companies that are delivering service and the speeds they offer. It also provides details down to buildings and street addresses that have access to broadband.

In 2020, broadband service was extended to 60 communities, reaching more than 70,000 Arkansans, at a cost of nearly $87 million, which primarily was stimulus money approved as part of federal coronavirus pandemic legislation.

The state believes it will receive more funding this year but does not yet know how much. Steven Porch, executive manager for the state's broadband program, which is administered by the Arkansas Commerce Department, hopes the state will get $100 million to continue broadband growth throughout 2021.

"We're confident we're going to have funding, we just don't know how much for certain and when we will receive it," he said last week.

The broadband office is collecting information from residents and businesses that don't have access to high-speed service to help prioritize areas with a pent-up demand.

"Our focus has always been, and will continue to be, to reach unserved and underserved areas," Porch said. "That will be our focus going forward."

In addition to consumer input, the broadband office is reaching out to state legislators and local officials – including county judges and mayors – to assess the need in the state.

Before last year's expansions, state officials estimated that 220,000-240,000 Arkansans did not have broadband service. That was reduced with the extension to reach an estimated 70,000 residents in 2020.

The mapping project is a partnership between the State Broadband Office and the Department of Education.

LR CHAMBER

The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce will hold another panel discussion Tuesday as part of its Cultivate series, which focuses on women's professional development.

Tuesday's session is scheduled from noon-1 p.m. and Central Arkansas business leaders will discuss Investing in Women-Owned Businesses. Participants include Brandy Thomason McNair of Bella Vita Jewelry; Martie North of Simmons Bank; and Errin Stanger of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub.

Discussion topics include the challenges and opportunities for women entrepreneurs in start-ups and highlights ways to attract investment capital and other vital resources.

The chamber's Cultivate series promotes development of women-owned businesses and the unique issues women confront in today's business culture. The course will be available through videostreaming.

Go to littlerockchamber.com for more information.

WALTON COLLEGE

Interested in adding more tools to create an effective narrative to engage employees and attract customers?

Businesses can learn more about developing an effective story in challenging times through a Feb. 1 course offered by the Walton College Executive Education program at the University of Arkansas

The program, available through Zoom, is scheduled from noon-12:45 p.m. and will be led by Sara Bishop or Orchid Communications in Fayetteville.

Bishop will outline critical steps that companies need to build an effective narrative that uses storytelling techniques.

PPP REVIVAL

The revived Paycheck Protection Program jumped off to a quick start in its first week of lending to small businesses that were bypassed in last year's round of funding.

The U.S. Small Business Administration, which runs the program, announced that it approved hundreds of thousands of loan applications from the initiative's opening on Jan. 11 until Jan. 17. Loan applications were submitted by nearly 3,000 lenders for more than $5 billion in requests.

Only community financial institutions, community development financial institutions and micro lenders were allowed to submit loans in the initial round of funding. The program was open to all lenders without restrictions on Jan. 15.

The federal agency, which has $284 billion available to lend, is targeting small businesses that had trouble gaining loans in the initial PPP rollout last year. SBA is hoping to reach groups that include underserved, minority, veteran, rural and women-owned businesses.

Early indications show that businesses still need the financial support to stay open and pay workers. Funds can be used for rent, utilities, payroll and other expenses such as purchasing equipment to protect customers and employees.

Home BancShares Inc. of Conway, which reported fourth-quarter earnings last week, said it already has issued about $100 million in loans in the first few days of its participation in the program.

"They're jumping on that amazingly fast," Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Allison told analysts on a call. "For a lot of small businesses, it's an opportunity to survive."

WOMEN BANKERS

The Arkansas Bankers Association is holding a half-day virtual session on Thursday to celebrate women in banking. The session begins at 8:45 a.m. and runs to noon.

Speakers will focus on topics including how to have tough conversations in the workplace, coping with the dynamics that add stress in today's pandemic environment and tips for thriving in turbulent times.

Arkansas Bank Commissioner Susannah Marshall also is scheduled to give an update on banking activity in the state.

More information is available at arbankers.org.

Column ideas or recommendations? Thoughts or musings that need pursuing? Contact me at amoreau@adgnewsroom.com or at 501-378-3567.

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