El Dorado News-Times
State officials seek local help in broadband expansion
Representatives from the Arkansas State Broadband Office visited El Dorado on Friday for an informative meeting focused on encouraging the formation of a county committee made up of local residents to help guide federal funds to where they are most needed in the community.
The meeting, which was attended by local residents and representatives of a range of county organizations, businesses and government entities, was held Friday morning at the Union County Courthouse.
Glen Howie, director of the Arkansas State Broadband Office, led the meeting alongside project manager Laurie Ringler and administrative analyst Kimberly Young. The three are currently on a statewide tour, part of an effort to prepare for incoming federal funding from President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed in 2021. Arkansas is expected to receive $1.4 billion to utilize towards infrastructure.
Howie introduced the Broadband Office’s overall goals and its three pillars of broadband.
“Our goal moving forward - we’re phrasing it as eliminating the digital divide in Arkansas, including Union County, by 2028,” Howie said.
Part of this goal, he continued, is shifting focus beyond infrastructure which, along with affordability and digital skills, make up the office’s three pillars of broadband.
“We can make Union County the most wired county in the country and run fiber to every home and business, but if our folks can’t afford it — that’s a problem. Likewise, we can run the fiber and we can make it free — but if people don’t have the digital skills they need, the devices they need, or don’t want to subscribe and adopt … we have to attack those issues as well. We have to think about all three and attack
them at the same time,” Howie said.
The Broadband Office has to submit two plans - -a years-long infrastructure plan and a digital opportunity and digital skills plan — to the U.S. Department of Commerce this year.
Howie said the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), a federal infrastructure program that links the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and internet service providers (ISPs), is an example of how difficult to navigate the various pools of funding can be. The program, Howie estimated, consisted of over $400 million in funding and reached 200,000 locations across the state with a six year time frame for the projects.
“There’s a great gentleman who lives in southern Arkansas who calls our office about once a week and lets us know he can’t get connected. The issue with him is that his residence… is in an RDOF award winning zone. His neighbor across the street… is in one of our ARC grant program areas… It’s possible that his neighbor across the street, in the separate Census block, a different grant program, could get connected tomorrow, and he may not get connected until 2029… This is how complicated this can get,” he said.
The Arkansas Rural Connect (ARC) program is available through the Arkansas State Broadband Office (ASBO) and provides “grants to internet service providers and partnering communities to facilitate the deployment of high-speed internet service to underserved areas of the state.”
Howie said that his edict to ISPs accepting grants through the Arkansas State Broadband Office will be two-year or less time frames for project completion.
For affordability, Howie referenced the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which ISPs accepting funding through the ASBO will also need to participate in.
This program offers $30 off internet bills to customers who qualify based on criteria including families with students who receive free or reduced lunch or families with a college student who has received a Pell grant.
Howie said the office estimates that about 4,785 households in Union County currently qualify for ACP, with only 1,293 currently enrolled.
In response to a question about outreach from Entergy customer service manager Chris Wasson, Howie said ASBO is partnering with an organization called Education Superhighway for a statewide engagement campaign to help address issues such as low ACP enrollment. More information in available at getacp.org/arkansas and at affordableconnectivity.gov.
ISP applicants will also be given higher priority in grant applications, Howie said, if they “offer cheaper prices on their plans… when their project is done.”
Howie also addressed digital skills, the Broadband Office’s third pillar of broadband.
Statistically, he said, the state has 274,000 residents who lack basic digital skills between 18 and 64 years of age, and Union County has 3,545.
Statistics provided by ASBO indicated that 3,670 locations in Union County are underserved by broadband providers.
Local county committees will help to formulate a plan for their local community, assisting with tasks including correcting a state-generated broadband access map to make sure areas without broadband access are correctly denoted.
One attendee asked a question which, in short, pointed to previous state-led surveys and outreach done in the county which have resulted in little feedback or improvement to the county’s broadband situation.
“For us, having each county do a committee and helping you focus on the issues, what’s important to you and what’s not, and what solutions you think you want to do at the county level — I think the reason it’ll be different moving forward is we’ll finally have enough money to build what we need to build and get it done and [having] organized committees in each county, at the county level, to help us get the thing done,” Howie said.
The organization will send further information with loose guidelines about forming the broadband committee for local leaders within the next week.
“We need representation on this committee from the whole county. We need county elected officials, municipal officials, people from health care, the libraries, education, ag, the Chamber of Commerce, our nonprofits, faith groups; we want to have a cross-section of the whole county represented,” Howie said.
The Broadband Office will also ask that a “digital navigator” be appointed to act as the point of contact for the committee.
“We think it works better if we have local people who know what issues you face, what barriers exist and what solutions you may want to try,” Howie continued.
The committee will communicate with the Broadband Office to indicate areas of focus and receive help and resources to achieve county level goals.
“You’ll help develop our plans and we’ll help move forward in your county with what you think is important,” Howie said.
Howie said the Broadband Office expects a $6-800 million in infrastructure funding to connect the 269,000 underserved locations across the state.
Arkansas, he continued, will likely then have surplus funding leftover to focus on further broadband projects. Howie said the state has directed focus towards broadband applications in health care, education, small business and agriculture, focusing on potential projects such as expanding cell tower coverage to all agricultural fields in the state or expanding telehealth access.
The state will also receive around $20 million for use towards “digital opportunity and digital skills” projects in addition to whatever surplus emerges from the broadband infrastructure funding.