The Arkansas Administrative Rules Subcommittee recently announced its approval to move forward with legislative review of a $25 million rural broadband development program designed to accelerate the state’s rural broadband. The Arkansas Rural Connect Broadband Grant Program was introduced by Gov. Asa Hutchinson as part of a statewide initiative to expand high-speed internet access to all communities of 500 or more people by 2022.
According to the Democrat Gazette, the program proposal received initial push-back from some legislators who expressed concerns that the program was not expansive enough to help the smallest communities in the state.
Sen. Breanna Davis, R-Russellville, also criticized the state’s grant program for not focusing enough attention on previously available federal grants.
Considering legislative comments, the state’s broadband office reworked the programs’ framework, adding grant eligibility for unincorporated communities and counties.
“We took it back, we rewrote the rules, we put them out for public comment and the things that you guys wanted to see changed we were able to change,” said state Broadband Manager Nathan Smith in a statement to a panel of lawmakers Wednesday.
Hutchinson’s plans call for minimum broadband speeds of 25 megabits-per-second to be extended to rural areas in the state. The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program recommends broadband standards of a minimum of 25 Mbps and a baseline of 50 Mbps.
The Gazette reported that Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, believes some of her previous concerns were addressed, but more work is needed on the program. “The changes that were made to this state program for deployment were really important,” Irvin said. “I think it’s important to know when you’re laying infrastructure, when you’re spending state dollars, it’s going toward deployment.”
Data available on BroadbandNow.com shows that 92 percent of Americans have access to broadband. Painting a dire picture of broadband availability in Arkansas, the website also reports that only about three-quarters of Arkansans have similar access.
“There’s this perception out there that we’re barefoot and have no WiFi,” Smith said. “The more that people see these lists and that we’re not doing anything about it, that perception becomes reality.”
A review by the full Legislative Council was expected to conclude on Friday, February 21.