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story.lead_photo.caption Rural broadband ribbon-cutting event Mark Cayce of Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corporation cuts a ribbon to celebrate a USDA loan of $20 million to install fiber internet access across Ouachita County and the surrounding areas. A rural broadband discussion was also held involving 4th District Rep. Bruce Westerman, members of the USDA and SATCO Director Mark Lundy. See related story.

— By BRADLY GILL

Staff writer

SAU Tech on Wednesday held a panel discussion about rural-internet expansion and several grants and loans available from the United States Department of Agriculture. A ribbon-cutting event celebrating the Farm Bill Broadband Award of Arkansas Rural Internet Services, LLC. was also held.

ARIS received nearly $20 million from the USDA in the form of a Rural Utility Service loan. The USDA website states, “The Telecommunications Program improves the quality of life in rural America by providing capital for the deployment of rural telecommunications infrastructure. USDA Rural Development is committed to ensuring that rural areas have access to affordable, reliable, advanced telecommunications services comparable to those available throughout the rest of the United States. With this access, rural America will see improved educational opportunities, health care, safety and security and ultimately, higher employment.

Speakers at the event were District 4 Rep. Bruce Westerman; state director of the USDA, David Branscum; Bill Vogt of the USDA; and SATCO Director Mark Lundy spoke about recent developments in bringing broadband infrastructure to Ouachita County and the surrounding areas.

Westerman thanked SAU Tech Chancellor Jason Morrison for hosting the discussion and said:

“This is a great institution here and part of the state where a lot of stuff happens and a lot of people don’t hear about what happens just across the street in Highland Industrial Park. A lot of critical components to our defense are made right here.”

Westerman said that due to technological advancements, agriculture is producing more with less manpower, leading to a reduction in population in rural areas. He also said that millennials are hesitant to move to rural areas because of a lack of high-speed internet. He noted that Farm Bill allocates funds to improve the infrastructure of broadband and also deliver it to areas that lack high-speed internet.

During Branscum’s speech, he said it was essential to keep young people “back home” and a big part of that would be the convenience of ordering from online businesses such as Amazon. He said that ARIS will be a poster child for success and that he was “thrilled” with the project.

Vogt noted during his speech that in the 30’s when electricity was uncommon in rural areas, that particular generation met the need by forming cooperatives, and likewise in the 50’s, telecom co-ops formed to provide telephone service. In the same vein, Vogt said that rural Arkansas’ broadband issue will have to be solved by the people of the community.

Lundy stated Wednesday that ARIS was special because it was a joint venture between SATCO and Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corporation - which is 50/50 owned by both companies. He said that ARIS hopes to bring more fiber internet to more rural customers.

Mark Cayce, general manager of Ouachita Electric said:

“If it wasn’t for our partner (SATCO), we wouldn’t be providing fiber to our members. It’s exciting for us to have fiber internet. It will be throughout Ouachita, Dallas, Calhoun, Bradley and Nevada Counties. We can’t wait to get it to everybody.”

Broadbandnow.com states:

• In total, there are 128 internet providers in Arkansas.

• There are 603,000 people in Arkansas without access to a wired connection capable of 25mbps download speeds.

• There are 661,000 people in Arkansas who have access to only one wired provider, leaving them no options to switch.

• Another 226,000 people in Arkansas don’t have any wired internet providers available where they live.

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