Internet support contract OK

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The Arkansas Legislative Council on Thursday signed a draft $ 1.95 million state contract with a North Little Rock firm to provide administrative support to the state Department of Commerce’s broadband office and to the Arkansas Rural Connect Broadband Grants Program.

The contract with the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health will last until June 30, 2023, and will be paid for through federal bailout funds, according to the Bureau of Legislative Research. In March, President Joe Biden enacted the $ 1.9 trillion US bailout law, designed to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the pandemic.

Commerce Secretary Mike Preston told lawmakers the Arkansas Rural Connect program had received requests asking for $ 350 million more in grants than previously approved. Subsequently, department spokeswoman Alisha Curtis said that number had risen to another $ 400 million.

On September 8, Governor Asa Hutchinson set a goal for Arkansas Rural Connect to provide an additional $ 250 million in grants funded by federal bailout funds by the end of this year.

The Arkansas Rural Connect program has already awarded $ 279 million in grants to provide high-speed Internet service. The 132 projects were funded with $ 157.5 million in US Rescue Plan funds; $ 118.1 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Act, Aid, Relief and Economic Security; and $ 4 million in public funds, according to state records.

RURAL IDENTITY GRANTS

Also on Thursday, the Legislative Council approved rural broadband identification grants of $ 75,000 each to the towns of Berryville and Russellville to hire consultants to conduct the business due diligence studies required for federal grant and loan applications. for broadband infrastructure.

The board then defeated a motion by Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, to delete that vote.

Dotson urged the council to write off the vote to give it time to consider whether the studies would duplicate the work of the Little Rock Broadband Development Group under the $ 2.2 million state contract for this. last, “so that we don’t spend twice as much”.

Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, countered that the grants in Berryville and Russellville will be used to fund the detailed engineering studies needed to secure federal funds, while the Broadband Development Group will conduct a high-level assessment across the country. the state.

On September 29, the board’s executive subcommittee signed the Department of Commerce’s $ 2.2 million contract with Broadband Development Group to assess Arkansas broadband needs and develop a master plan to expand coverage. .

Meeks said Thursday: “We’re talking apples and oranges in between.”

Dotson said: “There could be an apples and oranges comparison,” but he wants more time to confirm it.

Senator Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, said Berryville officials want grant funds to look into expanding broadband coverage.

Berryville’s grant application indicates that the city has a strong and capable of training workforce that can be attractive to many businesses and “a new business park that we are trying to attract people to.” employers ”.

“Developing a robust Internet infrastructure in this area will allow us to be more marketable for today’s technology-driven companies looking for an affordable and reliable business environment,” the grant application states.

Senator Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, said extending broadband coverage is “a big deal” in Russellville to help children learn more and more adults to work from home.

Russellville’s grant application states that “although the [Federal Communications Commission] indicates that Russellville has adequate broadband coverage, our experiences are quite different.

“Our city is home to Tyson Foods, ConAgra, Denali and other large manufacturing companies that have experienced an interruption in online availability due to slow broadband connection at their facilities,” the demand said. “Students and families have been forced to use broadband ‘hot spots’ of local businesses (sometimes their parking lots) as well as neighboring communities to access the program online during school closures in the event of pandemic. Some students and teachers were unable to attend school at all because of the lack of the Internet. “

Eighteen applicants have already received a total of $ 1.1 million in rural broadband identification grants.

CONTRACTUAL MATTERS

Representative Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, asked Thursday why the Commerce Department needed the consulting contract with the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health when it had a separate consulting contract with the Broadband Development Group.

Officials serving under Hutchinson hired the Broadband Development Group despite the company making the highest monetary bid, while also achieving the lowest rating on a technical basis compared to its two competitors.

Some lawmakers appreciated what they called the company’s “grassroots grassroots” approach of holding public meetings to gather public feedback and determine service needs. They said the state needs a master plan to ensure it effectively uses federal and state funds to expand broadband broadband coverage as widely as possible.

Preston said the department is outsourcing to the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, which already has a contract with the state’s finance and administration department.

The finance department’s $ 6 million contract with the center to provide advice and expertise related to the financing of the CARES Act was signed in July 2020, Finance Department spokesman Scott later said. Hardin. The contract was amended this year for an additional $ 10 million through July 2026 to allow the company to provide advice and expertise related to US bailout funds, he said.

Preston told lawmakers the center will provide administrative support to the national broadband office and the Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant program as part of its contract.

‘WHO IS IN CHARGE?”

This prompted Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, to ask, “Who’s in charge of broadband in the state of Arkansas? Who runs the show? “

Preston said Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism secretary Stacy Hurst chairs Hutchinson’s broadband task force, which also includes Department of Finance and Administration secretary Larry Walther and Preston, and they each recommended hiring the Broadband Development Group.

He said the Arkansas Rural Connect Broadband Grants Program is administered by the Department of Commerce and the Rural Identification Broadband Grants Program is administered by the Institute for Digital Health and Innovation. from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Each broadband grant program serves a different purpose, and “we’ve made significant progress” in expanding broadband coverage so far in Arkansas, Preston said.

“It’s a lot of moving parts, but we work together,” he said.

Senator Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, agreed with Preston.

“There are a lot of moving parts and there is a lot of coordination,” she said.

But Sen. Ricky Hill, R-Cabot, said “someone needs to be in charge” of broadband in the state, and the state needs a “head coach” to contact on the issues. broadband.

In response, Preston said “come see us” and he will get information from others if he does not have the information he is looking for on broadband issues.


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