Written by Frank Lockwood
Published by Arkansas Democrat Gazette
WASHINGTON — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue Wednesday announced $11.8 million in federal grants to expand broadband access in rural Arkansas.
Three Natural State companies will receive the funds through the USDA’s ReConnect Program, Perdue said during a virtual news announcement.
Northern Arkansas Telephone Company is getting $4.75 million to expand high-speed broadband internet access in Marion County. The roughly 79 miles of high speed fiber broadband will reach 526 homes,68 farms, and six businesses, the USDA said. The Flippin-based company has committed another $1.58 million of its own money for the project.
Arkansas Telephone Company will receive $4.1 million, enabling it to extend broadband services to 218 homes, 92 farms, and four businesses in Pope and Van Buren counties, the USDA said.
The Clinton-based business is contributing an additional $1.3 million and will lay 56 miles of fiber optic cable.
Mountain View Telephone Company’s $2.9 million grant, combined with $995,000 of its own money, will enable it to add more than 66 miles in Stone County, creating a “fiber-to-the-premises” network serving 554 homes, 39 farms, six businesses, two fire stations, and one post office.
Congress allocated $550 million for rural broadband access, making the grants possible, USDA officials said.
The program has the full support of the administration, Perdue said.
“My boss, President [Donald] Trump, is very serious about rural America and enhancing its quality of life,” he said.
Connectivity is crucial in order for all of America to thrive, Perdue said.
“It’s no longer a luxury. In business and in health and in education, it’s become a necessity because that’s the way we connect today,” he said. “If communities today are not connected with high speed broadband, they’re missing out on the economic development opportunities.”
While the nation’s population — and employment — have been shifting to its cities in recent decades, Perdue said young Americans deserve options.
“I want kids that grow up in rural America to have the opportunity economically to stay there if they so choose rather than having to go off to the metro areas in order to find a job, and I think this is one of those things that allows them to do that,” he said.
Chad Rupe, administrator of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, emphasized the importance of the projects in Arkansas and elsewhere.
“This infrastructure really does lay the foundation for rural Americans to thrive in the modern economy for at least the next 20 years. That’s really the benefit of putting fiber into these facilities,” he said.
Perdue was joined on Wednesday’s Zoom announcement by representatives of all three grant recipients.
Mountain View Telephone Company President Sara Zimmerman said the money would help extend broadband access even to Blanchard Springs Caverns in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest.
“The staff at Rural Utilities Service has been a joy to work with,” she said.
Steven Sanders, president and general manager of NATCO Communications, said the Northern Arkansas Telephone Company grant would benefit “an extremely rural part of Arkansas.”
“This is a highly unserved area,” he said. “We’re really excited to be able to start this project.”
Arkansas Telephone Company board Chairman Mark McCaslin said the grant would bring broadband to a remote and mountainous part of the state.
“It benefits the residents, the farms, public safety, educational services and the ability for these individuals to access telehealth for the entire community,” he said.
Three Arkansas Republicans — U.S. Sen. John Boozman of Rogers, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro — joined in Wednesday’s announcement.
Boozman praised Perdue’s leadership.
“I don’t think anybody’s done a better job of supporting rural America, and that’s really what this is all about,” he said.
Womack, who represents Pope and Marion counties, said connectivity is vital.
“There’s probably not anything more important to the rural areas we serve than broadband,” he said.
Crawford, whose district includes Stone County, stressed the importance of bringing rural America’s infrastructure “into the 21st century.”
“This is a huge step in the right direction,” he said.