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The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday approved grants to the cities of Benton and Cabot and Arkansas, Howard and Polk counties to help pay for studies required for federal broadband grant and loan applications.

The city of Cabot and Arkansas, Howard and Polk counties will each receive $75,000 Rural Broadband ID grants and the city of Benton will receive a $40,000 grant, said Joseph Sanford Jr., interim director of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Institute of Digital Health and Innovation, which administers the program.

The grants are available to help cities, incorporated towns, counties and unincorporated communities conduct broadband due diligence business studies that are required in federal grant and loan applications for funds to pay for broadband infrastructure, Sanford said in a letter to the Legislative Council's co-chairmen, Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage.

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Communities can use their broadband studies to apply for funding from the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program, the Agriculture Department's Farm Bill and other federal grants or loans for broadband development programs, he said.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who sponsored legislation to create the Rural Broadband ID grant program, asked Sanford how much these state grants will allow communities and local governments to leverage in federal dollars.

Sanford said, "It is hard to be precise given the opportunities [for] the various grants at the federal level."

Irvin asked, "Millions of dollars?"

Sanford replied, "Yes, ma'am."

Irvin noted that Polk County indicated it does not have staff capable of conducting technical studies and the county is partnering with Rich Mountain Electric Cooperative and Pinnacle Telecom in this venture. The proposed service area is all of Polk County, to the extent funding is available to reach all of the county's roughly 20,000 residents.

She said Polk County's grant application included letters of support from Mena Regional Health System, the Farm Bureau and Mena Public Schools.

"I think reading those letters also brings to mind exactly what these businesses are dealing with and struggling with and the schools as well," Irvin said.

The program has a limited number of grants, so "we would encourage anybody watching that thinks they might want to do this or has an application in preparation to please get that submitted, because we are awarding on a first-come, first-served basis," he said.

Sanford said the program encourages collaborations and partnerships with the local entity and various profit and nonprofit enterprises.

"That's because many of these cities do not have the talent in-house to do these studies and we are very well aware of that and have resources pages on our website ... that applicants can use to go find partners for their application," he said.

In August, UAMS announced that 30 grants of up to $75,000 are available through this program. The program is financed with $2.3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, said Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration.

The pandemic, which at times has closed schools and required many to work from home, brought attention to the need to improve internet access throughout the state.

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