LITTLE ROCK – Before this year, the legislature had already laid the groundwork for expansions of broadband capability in education and health care.
In response to the changing needs of schools and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, legislators have accelerated the pace of projects that expand broadband access in rural Arkansas and in small towns.
Thanks in large part to funding in the federal CARES Act, state officials have been able to beef up wireless capacity throughout Arkansas.
CARES is an acronym that stands for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. It was approved by Congress and signed by the president in March to offset the financial impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Arkansas is to receive about $1.25 billion in total from the act, which made possible funding of $25 million for broadband. That amount was increased in August by $100 million.
As a result of legislative action last week, more businesses, such as electric cooperatives, now are eligible to participate in the Arkansas Rural Connect program. Already, internet service providers, such as telephone companies, could join the program.
The legislative action made the rules of the program more flexible in another important category – the population threshold needed for eligibility. Previously, a community had to have at least 500 people in order to qualify for a grant, but many isolated communities had difficulty reaching that threshold. After the legislative rules change, they can now apply for a grant.
The rules change was approved by the Legislative Council’s Executive Subcommittee and implemented by the state Commerce Department. The benefits of the change are numerous. All companies with the capability can now work with local governments to expand Internet access within their boundaries. Municipalities that own their own utility service are also included. More rural communities qualify for the grants. Expanding access to broadband allows telemedicine, distance learning and working from home.
The goal of the Arkansas Rural Connect program is to help areas that lack Internet, and areas where Internet service is unreliably slow and inconsistent.
The legislature had already laid the foundation for expansion of Internet services across Arkansas with the passage of Act 198 of 2019. It revised the complex regulatory process governing telecommunications, to allow more entities to become Internet providers.
The Arkansas Rural Connect program is just one of several state efforts to expand Internet access. The state Education Department is spending $10 million to buy 20,000 devices that create “hot spots.”
In addition, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is administering a $2 million grant program for rural communities to expand Internet. It helps them pay for the costs of applying for grants, which can be considerable.
Government aid is available for areas that lack Internet service, but in order to demonstrate a lack of service the community has to conduct an accurate survey. Very few small towns have budgeted money for conducting surveys.
A goal of the UAMS grants, known as Rural Broadband I.D. Expenses Trust Fund Grants, is to fill that need and help small communities pay for the documentation and preparation needed to successfully gain grants. The program was created by Act 139 of 2020.