A director will be hired for the state’s broadband office, and the search has already begun for the right person, Jim Hudson, deputy director of operations and general counsel for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, told legislators on Friday.
The announcement, made during an Arkansas Legislative Council meeting, came on the heels of Monday’s release of a report from Broadband Development Group that was commissioned six months ago for a statewide study to develop a master plan for addressing broadband services.
The report put a $550 million price tag on the effort to extend broadband access to about 110,000 households still without high-speed internet.
“We’re working on significantly — and I do want to emphasize significantly — the staffing in the broadband office,” Hudson said. “We’ve already talked to our technical adviser, which is UAMS, their Institute of Digital Health and Innovation, to give us a proposed budget to handle the increased workload.”
The person hired for the position will have to be a “thought leader,” Hudson said.
“So far, what we’ve done with the ARC [Arkansas Rural Connect] program is really be a processor of grants. I believe that Judge [Steven] Porch and his team — and it’s a small team — have been incredibly efficient and effective in getting a lot of grants processed and moved out the door,” Hudson said. “Now, because of all the policy implications that are coming into play, different pots of money, we need somebody who is a thought leader both in technology and in policy.”
Porch is the Arkansas Rural Connect executive broadband manager and chief legal counsel for the Arkansas Department of Commerce.
Later Friday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a news conference that strengthening the state broadband office was a necessity.
“We’re already working on that because this is a large, major oversight responsibility for the Department of Commerce,” Hutchinson said. “We’re looking for ways to strengthen that. It’s one of the things the federal government asks as well as they deploy federal dollars here.”
Hudson told the legislators that he would be back in May to ask the legislative personnel committee to approve the position.
Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, said he was very glad to hear that a broadband director would be hired.
“That’s been one of my complaints for the last several years is that we haven’t had that point person or these project managers to be able to manage this level of complication to get all this stuff done,” Meeks said. “I’m very encouraged to hear that.”
The 79-page “Arkansas State Broadband Plan” released Monday concluded that the state has 251,000 households categorized as lacking adequate broadband access, meaning those with internet speeds less than 100 megabits per second.
Broadband Development Group whittled that number down to 110,000 households after subtracting 41,000 households mischaracterized by the FCC and another 100,0000 households that the state is working on through various state and federal grant coverage.
Hudson said that the estimated half-billion dollar cost estimate would likely go up “with inflation being what it is.”
Over a three-year time frame, Hudson estimated that $300 million would go toward about 100,000 households while $200 million would go to 10,000 households.
“Said another way, about 40% of the cost would go to less than 1% of the households in Arkansas. Those are the most expensive parts,” Hudson said. “There’s a reason why those have not quite gotten service yet. They’re expensive because of topography and they’re expensive because of density.”
In the report, the group suggested that part of the project’s price tag could be funded by tapping into federal funds in the range of $254 million to $358 million,
BDG also recommended a cost-sharing component in the report with internet service providers to offset the cost. Currently, the state would fund 100% of the build out in the current Rural Connect program. Hudson said officials are looking at a possible 75/25% split to share the burden.
Hudson told legislators that there will be “ample money available” coming primarily from federal sources, including remaining funding that is available through the American Rescue Plan, that can be used for broadband and a “significant amount of money” that will be coming from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill.
“We just need to figure out which funding stream makes the most sense at which point in time,” Hudson said. “We’ll come back to you likely in early summer with a funding request for standing up a strengthened and enlarged broadband office.”
Hutchinson said later that another important aspect of the plan roll out is the need to work with the Legislature on new rules.
Hudson said earlier that they set a July 1 deadline to have the proposed rules to the Legislature.
Hutchinson took issue with the federal six-year timeline for getting broadband service to those 100,000 households that are covered by federal grants. (Federal rules prohibit the state from granting funds to these areas covered by the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.)
“That’s a long time,” Hutchinson said. “It’s not as fast as I would like to go, and I hope that we can accelerate our deployment to 110,000 households and I hope that they accelerate their deployment as well.”
Legislators peppered Hudson with numerous questions about the report, some taking issue with Broadband Development Group’s absence from the meeting. BDG, of Little Rock, is led by CEO Lou McAlister.
“Why are they not here today?” Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, asked.
Hudson had previously said in his opening remarks, before taking questions from the legislators, that he was there to give an overview, not a detailed analysis since the report was released just days earlier and the legislators likely didn’t have time to review it.
“We’ll be working with leadership to schedule appropriate committee meetings for Mr. McAlister to come in and give you the more detailed presentation, the findings in the report and to be able to answer your technical questions,” Hudson said.
According to McAlister, it was BDGs’ understanding that Friday’s meeting was intended to be just an initial conversation about the report and that BDG’s availability would be needed in future legislative meetings.
Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said it was important that the consulting group comes and makes a full presentation to the legislature.
“I think we need at least that,” she said, adding that there will be hearings in the Joint Performance Review Committee in a couple of weeks. “I think it’s very important. That report is lengthy, it’s detailed and it is very good. But it takes some time to think about it. I know there are maps out there, supposedly there are interactive maps. — I haven’t seen those. I don’t know what those look like. For people to have a better understanding of what we’re really talking about, we need to have that full discussion.”
Legislative Council vice-chairman Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said he hopes ongoing meetings will clear up some concerns.
“One thing I hope we’ll have in ongoing meetings on this is the concern that originally all the money was paid up front, the concern on projects that they get completed, who owns product if they don’t get completed, and making sure the signal and end result is what it’s supposed to be is a big thing,” he said.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, thanked Hudson for the report and said that she was “incredibly excited” to have a master plan and a road map.
“I think it’s very important for us to understand it in terms I think we understand the Department of Transportation,” Irvin said. “And here’s the reason why I say that: Primarily because there are areas in the state where it’s really costly to build roads and bridges. But people need those roads and those bridges. And the state of Arkansas needs those roads and those bridges no matter where we are in the State of Arkansas or no matter how costly they are to build. We need to think about that in the same way with this infrastructure of the 21st century.”