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Broadband access discussed as part of rural development

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Photo/Tammy Curtis Sharp County Judge Larry Brown, Cherokee Village Mayor Llyod Hefley and Executive Assistant Terry Romans discuss questions and concerns about a grant from Connect Arkansas that could help provide broadband access to residents in Sharp County with Jerry Smith and Frankie Gillian with the Arkansas State University's Delta Center for Economic Development. The agency is currently in charge of a county-wide economic development plan funded in part by the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas.
A focus group for Powering Rural Development met Nov. 12 to discusss the newly discovered availability of grant money to help fund high speed broadband Internet access for the area.

The need for the high speed Internet as an avenue of promoting the area and for new businesses was one of the top priorities in many of the town hall meetings held in May and June throughout the county, including a county-wide meeting May 7 in which the mayors from the quad cities were present with members of the public, business owners and members of the Sharp County Quorum Court. They discussed needs for the county, assets and ways to further increase economic development in the area.

Jerry Smith and Frankie Gilliam with the Arkansas State University Delta Center for Economic Development headed the group in which Cherokee Village Mayor Lloyd Hefley, Sharp County Judge Larry Brown and Cherokee Village executive assistant Terry Romans discussed the grant and ways the county could utilize possible funding.

Because the county is the only county in the state to utilize a county-wide economic plan, Smith said the county had a good chance of receiving the grant money to improve the infrastructure.

The grants are available through Connect Arkansas, a private, non-profit agency that has worked to promote and foster broadband education, use and access throughout the state. It is unclear if the county can apply for the grant or if applications must be submitted by private entities. These are questions that will be further addressed at a January steering committee meeting.

Governor Mike Beebe signed the Connect Arkansas Broadband Act into law in 2007, to ensure the creation of a competitive broadband or high speed Internet infrastructure that will not only improve personal lives, but also the economic prospects for Arkansans.

Smith and Gilliam also presented to attendees of the meeting the summary of all the focus group meetings held in the summer.

The next step in further economic development, including the broadband prospective is sending take home surveys to school age students in the county. Brown said after he receives a cover letter, he will begin contacting the schools about sending the surveys home with students.

Businesses will also be surveyed in the Sharp County area to determine their needs in expanding their Internet services.

Brown said he is concerned with how the grant will be dispersed whether it can be done with a governmental unit or if it is more of a private sector thing.

Smith said Connect Arkansas' goal is to provide a 10 megabytes per second access speed to subscribers in the state.

Gilliam said the available grant can be used to improve or enhance already existing service.

Many in rural areas in Sharp County are very limited in their choice of Internet service with affordability being a major concern.

Following the tabulation of the survey results in early January 2010, the steering committees can get a better vision of needs for the county as well as answers about who can apply for the money, the amount of the grants available and for what they may be used.

For information on Connect Arkansas, including broadband maps of unserved and under served areas visit their Web site at www. connectarkansas.org/

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