During its brief legislative session recently, the Arkansas General Assembly authorized the creation of a program to provide grants for efforts to deliver broadband to rural areas.
The new program has spending authority of $2 million in fiscal year 2021 that starts July 1st.
Act 139 of 2020 creates the Rural Broadband I.D. Expenses Trust Fund to be used for one-time grants to entities to defray expenses for broadband due-diligence business studies. Those studies would be done for prospective applicants for funding from federal broadband programs, including the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program.
The Governor’s office says that funding has not been allocated for Act 139 of 2020, and that will be a future decision.
Arkansas lags behind in broadband based on access to low-cost plans and wired networks. According to the website www.broadbandnow.com, Arkansas ranked 41st in broadband access. The problem has been highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic that has forced students and numerous employees to do their work from home.
The website says 77.7% of Arkansans have access to wired broadband speed of 25 megabits per second or faster, while 65.2% have access to 100 megabits per second or faster.
In August of last year, Governor Asa Hutchinson announced his own broadband plan, the Arkansas Rural Connect Broadband Grant Program. That $25 million plan was intended to get high-speed broadband service to rural areas.
The Legislative Council approved the transfer of $5.7 million from the state’s restricted fund to provide startup funding for Arkansas Rural Connect. Both counties and unincorporated communities are eligible to co-apply for grants from the program.