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Broadband meeting held, need overwhelming

By Staff, 12/9/21 1:51 PM

PRESCOTT – Better internet access is one thing a group gathered at the Nevada County Library Thursday morning could agree on.

A public meeting on the need for improved internet access was held by the Broadband Development Group (BDG), with Linda Nelson and Alisa Smith running the show. Nelson said there is a statewide initiative to provide affordable internet services to everyone in the state. The BDG has been doing surveys across the state to get an idea of what’s available where, how reliable it is and whether or not it’s affordable.

Nelson said when COVID hit students were the ones most affected, especially those without access to any kind of internet. The governor and legislature had been working on a plan to improve internet access across the state, but the pandemic brought the need forward. BDG, she continued, is collecting information, good and bad, and will submit it to engineers who are working on a plan to be presented to the governor and legislature. According to Nelson, there will be approximately $1 billion available for this massive project.

She pointed out BDG will not be bidding on internet services and is only collecting data for the project. There are a number of aspects being examined: commercial, financial, social and political. The commercial element is to make sure the program selected is sustainable over the long haul, while the financial part is to make sure the money is spent properly to  provide the people of Arkansas with the best internet possible. The social portion, she said, is important for education, agriculture and economic growth, and though the internet isn’t a utility today, it is vital for everything people do in their lives. Finally, the political part will be difficult as the state’s leaders have tough decisions to make to insure the money is properly spent and affordable, accessible internet is available to everyone in the state.

Stacey Eads, with Cablelynx, pointed out WEHCO Media is in the process of providing one-gigabyte service to customers in the Hope-Prescott region. The company, she said, currently offers upload and download speeds of 250 megabytes.

Fifteen years ago, Nelson said, we all weren’t carrying smart phones in our pocket, but now they rule our lives and the new equipment coming out will require more and more broadband access. It is likely, she continued, we’ll never see this kind of money put into one major project like this again, and it’s important to make sure things are done right.

Eads told those gathered there’s a map available showing areas that could and couldn’t be reached at this time. She said WEHCO bid on the project, but had to go through speed tests and let people know what they’d be getting. They were also given a deadline on when their improvements had to be done, showing a plan and the maximum broadband available for customer needs.

Nelson told those gathered it’s important to fill out and return the surveys, especially filling in the addresses to show what services are available where, and get them back no later than early or mid-March as they have to be turned in by the end of March and those physically returned must be inputted into the system.

Robert Poole, superintendent of the Prescott School District, said this needs to be a long-term project, and not just for access but adequate access.

Mary Godwin, executive director of the Prescott-Nevada County Economic Development Office, said the school did a survey and suggested getting copies of it for BDG to use.

Eads chimed in saying there is a program where families can get $50 off their internet bill if they have school children on the free lunch program. WEHCO, she said, gets paid by the state and adjusts the bill accordingly. Godwin said this was done in Prescott, too, but was too much for students who just gave up on it.

Questions were raised about being able to check on the progress of this survey and the state’s plans. Smith said there isn’t one, but it’s a good idea, but the important thing is for everyone to fill out a survey form. A QR code can be scanned using a smart phone and the survey done online.

Poole said it would be nice, once the project is complete, if people got a free trial period from different providers to see which they liked and which best met their needs.

Not only will there be checks and balances built in to the bidding process, Nelson said, but companies will have to invest their own money as well. These companies will be inspected to make  sure they’re doing what they promised and aren’t just out to get the money.

Danny Stewart, IT manager at Hines Trucking, said he’s spent the last 25-years working with different companies on the internet and was part of setting up the first provider in Prescott. He said most people don’t realize this boils down to simple physics. Some DSL lines, he said are worse than dial up, and wireless gets worse over distance. Satellite internet, he continued, is irrelevant, and the only two ways to get this done is fiber optics and coaxial cable. A pool is needed to make sure it’s available to everyone and is affordable. He added, Centurylink is the only provider offering fiber optics and it’s been sold. All the governments in the county, he said, need to apply for grants to provide fiber optic all over the county. “We need to do this ourselves. Other companies can join in.”

It was stressed, repeatedly, how important getting people to respond to the survey is. Dale Booker, 911 coordinator, said around 3,000 are signed up on Civic Ready and it can be used to help get the word out.