Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday released the Arkansas State Broadband Plan, setting a goal to deploy high-speed broadband to all Arkansas communities with more than 500 residents by 2022. The high-speed broadband would have a rate of 25 megabits per second for download and three megabits per second for upload.
“Arkansas has already established itself as a national leader in providing high-speed, broadband connectivity to our schools,” Hutchinson said. “Today, as a result, our students are developing 21st century skills in the classroom to succeed in tomorrow’s workforce. Our focus now extends beyond our schools and into our rural communities. Equal access to high-speed broadband in rural Arkansas is a critical component to the success and longevity of our state’s economy, and I “believe this plan will help us accomplish that goal within the next four years.”
In March, Hutchinson charged the Arkansas Development Finance Authority Economic Policy Division, led by Nathan Smith, Ph.D., to develop a State Broadband Plan. Stakeholders from the private and public sectors assisted in preparing the plan and provided key feedback during the process. Stakeholders include:
Arkansas Department of Information Systems; the University of Arkansas Agricultural Extension Service; the Arkansas Department of Health; AT&T; Cox; CenturyLink; Windstream; the University of Arkansas System and the ARE-ON Network; Larry Frazier of Rural Arkansas Telecommunication Systems; Arkansas Electric Cooperatives; the Rural Electric Cooperative Association; technology expert Brent Skorup of the Mercatus Center; Elizabeth Bowles of Aristotle and the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee; Ted Thomas, Chairman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission; the Arkansas Department of Transportation; and Cynthia Edwards, Deputy Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture.
The 77-page plan includes thirteen sections:
• Section I: Provides additional details about the Governor’s goal, how the state can meet this goal, and the current state of broadband in Arkansas.
• Section II: Describes the competitive landscape for broadband services in the state.
• Section III: Describes federal government programs that have been instrumental in deploying broadband to rural Arkansas in recent years.
• Section IV: Lays out plans for a State Broadband Office, which Governor Hutchinson plans to create, to be tasked with helping Arkansas citizens, companies, and municipalities utilize federal programs. The Broadband office will also oversee public policy deliberations to ensure that all stakeholders are treated fairly while incentivizing deployment.
• Section V: Discusses the Arkansas High Cost Fund, which handles large quantities of funds and is highly valued by rural telecom companies, which in turn play an important role in supplying broadband to many parts of rural Arkansas.
• Section VI: Describes existing state and federal communications assets, such as the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network (ARE-ON), E-Link, which uses the ARE-ON network for telehealth, fiber accessible by the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT), the Arkansas Wireless Information Network (AWIN), and FirstNet. The state network has an all-fiber presence in all 75 counties, which is a significant asset for Arkansas.
• Section VII: Covers the use of broadband in education and the ways that education can promote broadband.
• Sections VIII and IX: Focuses on two specific industries, agriculture and health care, where the role that rural broadband can play is especially salient for public policy.
• Section X: Addresses the important issue of broadband mapping.
• Section XI: Deals with a key policy issue in broadband deployment: access to utility poles, towers and other key connection points for wired and wireless communication equipment.
• Section XII: Explores policy options suggested by the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) that could accelerate broadband deployment through changes in the codes governing infrastructure projects and construction of new buildings.
• Section XIII: Explains Act 813 of 2017, which permits public-private partnerships for purposes of infrastructure investments; and Act 198 of 2019, which allows municipalities to apply for funding from grant and loan programs to create broadband service and offer it to the public; and to give governmental entities in Arkansas new options for responding to citizen demands for broadband.
With the governor’s release of a state broadband plan, telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives, utilities and internet service providers will be able to cite the plan when applying for federal grants to expand broadband infrastructure and connectivity in rural Arkansas.