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Arkansas lawmakers OK funding for 29 more broadband installation projects

$113.7M to aid installation through Rural Connect program by Michael R. Wickline | November 20, 2021 at 4:05 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 authorized the use of $113.7 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for 29 grants for broadband installation through the Arkansas Rural Connect program.

The council also authorized its co-chairmen, Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, to sign off on the use of an additional $11 million in American Rescue Plan funds for three more broadband grants. State officials plan a further review of those projects.

Earlier, the council's executive subcommittee approved an emergency rule for the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program.

Under the rule, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission will disburse the program's funds so that future grant recipients receive grants in quarterly installments based on expenses incurred and submitted to the broadband office and verified by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Institute of Digital Health & Innovation.

Jim Hudson, deputy director of operations and general counsel for the AEDC, told the subcommittee Friday that the emergency rule reflects the original rules of the Arkansas Rural Connect program before the program had to quickly distribute federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds for broadband grants late last year.

He said the emergency rule addresses the concerns of some lawmakers raised during Tuesday's meeting of the council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee and will impact the grants authorized Friday as well as in the future.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, said he believed it would be prudent to implement a drawdown system for paying internet service providers, wherein they would be paid throughout the project based on how much work they complete. Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said he agreed with Sample.

Hudson said Tuesday that broadband grant awardees have been paid in a lump sum as an advance.

The companies submit invoices and receipts for expenses incurred into a portal that is monitored by the Institute of Digital Health & Innovation.

The portal tracks those expenses against the project timeline and details provided in the application, according to Hudson.

Hudson said that while the department uses the system Sample described for other grant programs, the department faced a tight deadline to allocate CARE funds.

The Arkansas Rural Connect program has awarded $279 million in grants to provide high-speed broadband service in rural areas. The 132 projects have been financed with $157.5 million in American Rescue Plan funds, $118.1 million in CARE funds and $4 million in state funds, documents show.

On Sept. 8, Gov. Asa Hutchinson set a goal for the Arkansas Rural Connect program to award $250 million more in grants financed with American Rescue Plan funds by the end of this year.

Hutchinson said Friday, "I applaud the Legislature for the prompt approval of the latest round of broadband grants."

"Over $250 million in broadband expansion projects have been received and this was the first part of my goal," the Republican governor said in a written statement. "As to whether these grants can be processed by the end of the year depends upon completion of timely technical reviews and whether adequate federal funds are in hand. We will reach the goal, but the timing is undetermined at this point."

The providers and the service areas for the 29 broadband grants authorized on Friday include:

• AVECC-Wave Rural Connect, Charleston, $1.2 million.

• AVECC-Wave Rural Connect, rural Crawford County, $3.3 million.

• CableSouth Media 3, Lincoln County, $4.1 million.

• HillBilly, south Sharp County, $8.9 million.

• Indco Cable TV, Newark, $6.8 million.

• Mountain View Telco, Stone County-Mingues Turner/Arkansas 87/Pleasant Grove, $6 million.

• Premier Holdings LLC, Mineral Springs, $4.4 million.

• Ritter Communications, Cross County, Crowley's Ridge, $3.1 million.

• Ritter Communications, west Cross County, $4.2 million.

• Ritter Communications, northeast Jefferson County, $4.6 million.

• Ritter Communications, northwest Jefferson County, $11.3 million.

• Ritter Communications, north central Poinsett County, $2.8 million.

• Ritter Communications, south central Poinsett County, $1.6 million.

• Ritter Communications, Pope County, Appleton-Hector- Scottsville area, $5.6 million.

• Ritter Communications, southwest Pope County, $7 million.

• Ritter Communications, north central St. Francis County, $4.3 million.

• Ritter, northwest St. Francis County, $3.2 million.

• SATCO, Bradley County, $2.9 million.

• SATCO, south Warren, $3.3 million.

• SWAT, Blevins and McCaskill, $3.6 million.

• SWAT, Columbia County, $5.4 million.

• Walnut Hill Telephone, Ebeneezer, $1.9 million.

• Walnut Hill Telephone, Falcon, $1.4 million.

• Walnut Hill Telephone, Medlock, $793,461.

• Walnut Hill Telephone, Oak Grove Road, Buckner, $1.8 million.

• Walnut Hill Telephone, Shiloh, $1.8 million.

• Walnut Hill Telephone, South Lake Columbia, $1.9 million.

• Windstream, Cleburne County, $2.8 million.

• Windstream, Dallas County 2, $2.4 million.

Hudson said state officials will review concerns raised by some community members and competing Internet service providers about three proposed grants and he hopes to resolve these matters soon. State officials also are working on a proposed rule to govern challenges to proposed broadband grants, he said.

Those providers and proposed service areas include:

• Premier Holdings LLC, Stamps, $4.4 million.

• Ritter Communications, central Craighead County, $3.7 million.

• Ritter Communications, east Craighead County, $3.2 million.

Information for this article was contributed by Rachel Herzog of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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