ROGERS — Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced last week that it will cost $25 million to get high-speed broadband service to all rural communities in the state by 2022.
Hutchinson made the announcement at the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association’s summer conference. Hutchinson called the decision “an historic state commitment.”
Of the $25 million plan, the Arkansas Legislative Council is able to approve $5.7 million this year, and the balance will need to be appropriated in next year’s fiscal session, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
The governor announced the State Broadband Plan in May. In July, he established the Arkansas State Broadband Office.
Arkansas ranks last among states in access to wired broadband, according to the website BroadbandNow.com. While 92% of Americans as a whole have access to wired broadband, only about 75% of Arkansans have similar access.
The Federal Communications Commission’s standard for minimum broadband speed is 25 megabits per second for downloads, and 3 megabits per second for uploads. That’s fast enough to download a song in a second, or a two-hour movie in about 10 minutes.
The Arkansas Rural Connect program announced last week will provide grants to qualifying communities of at least 500 people to get high-speed broadband.
Garfield Mayor Gary Blackburn called the prospect of improved broadband service “very exciting” for his city. Garfield’s population was 502 in the 2010 census.
“AT&T ran a line from Rogers to Garfield, to our school, to get our school service similar to the other schools,” Blackburn said. “We’ve had lots of professionals who live here complaining they can’t work from their homes because they don’t have broadband.”
AT&T provided the service for the school but it isn’t available in the community, Blackburn said.
Blackburn, in his fifth year as mayor, said there are two problems that threaten growth in smaller communities: inadequate wastewater treatment and limited or no access to broadband Internet service.
Elizabeth Bowles, CEO of Little Rock-based wireless Internet service provider Aristotle, said the state funding program is “a great start,” but not the whole solution to what she called “the broadband divide.”
Bowles, chairwoman of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, said the Arkansas program reflected recommendations made by that committee.
She noted Arkansas only recently changed a state law banning municipalities from ownership of Internet service facilities, which opened the way for the grant program. The grant funding, in turn, will help attract money from private investors, nonprofits and possibly additional federal funds for broadband service.
Bowles said Aristotle is working with 23 counties in Arkansas, many in the Delta. The ultimate goal, she said, is to reach a level of accessibility and competition in those areas that will ensure quality service.
Maps created by the Arkansas Development Finance Authority’s Economic Policy Division show access to broadband is especially sparse in towns throughout the Arkansas Delta, Ozark Mountains and the southern timberlands.
A governor’s report also found substantial parts of some urban areas, such as Little Rock and West Memphis, lack access to high-speed Internet.
The governor’s office said 641,000 Arkansans did not have access to wired Internet capable of broadband speeds, despite 136 Internet service providers operating in the state. Arkansas has a population of about 3 million. There are 721,000 Arkansans who have access to a single wired Internet service provider, according to the report.
The governor’s report also pointed to investments in rural broadband being made by the FCC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The governor made Internet connectivity in schools a priority during his first term in office.
Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston was quoted in the news release saying the speed of information across the state is one question prospective businesses ask when they consider moving to Arkansas.