Arkansas group recommends $ 124.7 million in rural broadband grants

A state panel on Wednesday approved the state Department of Commerce’s request for an additional $ 124.7 million in US bailout federal funds to provide broadband subsidies to rural communities.

With a few audible dissenting voices, the 15-member Arkansas US bailout steering committee voted to recommend approval of the request.

In May, Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed the steering committee, made up of nine officials from the Hutchinson administration and six state lawmakers, to recommend the best uses of $ 1.57 billion in federal stimulus funds and $ 157 billion. million dollars in federal capital project funds as part of the US bailout. In March, President Joe Biden signed the $ 1.9 trillion law designed to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

So far, the Arkansas Rural Connect program has awarded $ 279 million in broadband grants to provide broadband broadband service in rural areas. The 132 projects were funded with $ 157.5 million in federal funds from the US Rescue Plan; $ 118.1 million in federal funds from the Coronavirus Help, Relief and Economic Security Act; and $ 4 million in public funds, according to state records.

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Jim Hudson, director of strategy and operations for the Department of Commerce, told the steering committee that two months ago, Hutchinson set a target for the Arkansas Rural Connect program to provide an additional $ 250 million in funded grants. by federal funds from the US bailout by the end of this year.

The Arkansas Rural Connect program has received more than $ 400 million in additional grant applications, although not all grant applications qualified for the program, he said.

Hudson said the $ 124.7 million requested by the Commerce Department would fund 32 “ready-to-go” broadband projects across the state.

The largest proposed grants include $ 11.3 million to Ritter Communications to provide service in northwest Jefferson County, $ 8.9 million to Hillbilly Wireless to provide service in southern Sharp County and $ 7 million to Ritter Communications to provide services in southwestern Pope County, according to the Commerce Department.

But committee member Senator Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, objected to approval of the agency’s request.

He said lawmakers in the states he consulted are uncomfortable approving additional grants until “we get” the statewide broadband master plan that lawmakers want.

Hudson countered that “we can do both at the same time.”

There is no doubt that the 32 proposed broadband grants are needed, he said, and the master plan may not be available until May.

Hutchinson administration officials have awarded a $ 2.2 million contract to assess Arkansas’ broadband needs and develop a master plan to expand broadband service to Broadband Development Group in Little Rock, though the company made the highest financial offer and obtained the lowest score on a technical basis compared to with its two competitors.

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Several senators preferred what they called the company’s “grassroots grassroots” approach of holding town halls to gather public input and determine service needs.

Sample said “we want to see the master plan and fund the projects” based on this master plan.

“We have several years to do it,” he said. (Funding for the US bailout must be committed by Dec.31, 2024 and spent by Dec.31, 2026, Finance and Administration spokesperson Scott Hardin later said.)

Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, who sits on the Legislative Council’s Performance Assessment and Expenditure Review subcommittee, said he wanted more information to see how many broadband projects awarded Arkansas Rural Connect grants have been completed and how many are still in the works.

Hudson said the subcommittee will receive a thicker information package than that received by the steering committee with detailed information about the territory covered by the proposed grants in addition to demographic information.

Subsequently, Ingram said he joined with Sample in voting against the recommendation to approve the $ 124.7 million request.

In the remaining cases, the steering committee recommended approval of a total of $ 16.6 million in federal bailout funds to four nonprofit groups who requested a total of $ 28.1 million. dollars.

In the absence of audible dissenting votes, the panel voted to recommend providing the following amounts of federal funds to the following groups:

• $ 8.28 million of the $ 12 million requested by the Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence to help 29 domestic violence shelters across the state.

• $ 6.29 million of the $ 13.8 million requested by the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault to help 18 rape relief centers across the state.

• $ 1.75 million requested by Women & Children First in Little Rock to help cover the cost of furniture, fixtures and equipment for a relocated shelter and the Family Peace Center.

• $ 374,896 of the $ 543,328 requested by Ozark Rape Crisis Inc. in Clarksville which provides sexual assault and domestic violence prevention and intervention programs in eight counties.

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