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Legislature supports expanded broadband

By submitted, 09/4/21 7:54 AM

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas legislators continue to support a statewide expansion of broadband service as quickly as possible, especially in areas where there is no Internet at all and in places where the technology is obsolete.

At the same time, lawmakers are being careful to not move so quickly that money is wasted or misspent. Legislators are working to ensure that increased funding does not simply enable current Internet providers to protect their existing turf, by shutting out competition.

At its regular monthly meeting, the Arkansas Legislative Council approved spending $120 million on 34 broadband projects that are ready to begin. The Council also approved an additional $27 million for 12 other projects that still need a technological review.

The money comes from the American Rescue Plan, approved by Congress and the federal administration earlier this year.

During the same meeting, the Council expedited approval of a consultant to map out a statewide broadband plan. As the American Rescue Plan makes more money available to local Internet service providers, legislators have expressed more concern about the lack of an overall plan that will prevent duplication of services.

Also, lawmakers want to make sure that government funding isn’t awarded to private local providers for routine maintenance.

The broadband projects are done by a partnership between a local government and a private provider, such as a telephone company, an Internet service provider or an electric co-operative.

Several lawmakers on the Legislative Council expressed concerns about funding going to some providers, saying that their current level of service was not of good quality.

Another concern of lawmakers was that a particular area may not qualify for a broadband grant, because supposedly it is already being served by an existing provider. However, everybody who lives in the area knows that it is not being served by the company.

A deputy director at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, through which the grants are being awarded, said that complaints about service may be a result of the old equipment that the provider wants to upgrade.

When a provider receives a grant, there will be an ongoing audit to ensure that the promised services are made available to consumers, the deputy director said.

A senator on the Council questioned officials about the date the broadband consultant would be hired, saying that in the future the consultant would review all proposals to make sure they fit into a statewide plan. The consultant should be hired in September.

In conjunction with the large grants for broadband expansion are important initial grants made possible by the legislature in 2020, known as Rural Broadband ID grants.

The legislature appropriated $2 million for the ID grants through the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Institute for Digital Health and Innovation. One senator called the institute the “brain trust” for broadband in Arkansas.

Rural Broadband ID grants help local governments pay for data such as due-diligence studies, surveys and maps of available service.

That information usually costs more than a small county or town has in its budget, but it’s necessary to prove the existence of unserved or underserved areas. Rural ID grants pay for the accurate data that is needed to apply for larger federal grants, such as those funded through the American Rescue Plan.