SEARCY -- White County Cable TV will invest $14.2 million to deliver broadband service to residents in five north-central Arkansas communities by the end of 2022 -- essentially doubling its investment in the area.
The company is pledging to deliver 1-gigabit service to every resident and business in Searcy, Judsonia, Kensett, Higginson and Bald Knob. The project, which involves upgrading 350 miles of infrastructure, will begin in Searcy and then expand to the other communities. About 5,682 customers are in the service area.
"I think this can really give you a selling point for economic development," Walter Hussman Jr., chairman of WEHCO Media, Inc., told the group of community leaders gathered for the announcement Monday at the Searcy Chamber of Commerce.
WEHCO Media owns White County Cable and is parent company of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The company is funding the entire project, which is being called "Gig City." Today, White County Cable's investment in the area is about $13.8 million and the broadband upgrade will add another $14.2 million, Hussman said. "We're really rebuilding the whole system here," he said.
Service will be offered under the Cablelynx Broadband brand.
"This is going to use the latest technology and deliver gigabit service to every resident and business in the area," said Tony Allen, the company's area manager. "What's unique about this is we are not going to cherry-pick customers or target only certain segments. We're going to offer this to everyone in these five communities."
Searcy and surrounding communities will receive faster service at better prices, said Buck Layne, president and chief executive officer of the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"This will allow businesses and residents, especially at a time when we have more people working from home, to get information quicker and faster and cheaper than they ever have before," Layne said. "This is going to be a tremendous boost for our community."
Mapping and engineering for Gig City began in 2019. Allen said speeds in each service area will increase gradually and the company will keep customers informed as the upgrades are implemented.
Implementation should be seamless and will not involve any action from customers – there won't even be a need to enter a home or business to install the service.
"We're going to be able to do this without coming into your home," Hussman said. "It's a lot less disruptive for us as a company and for you as a customer."
Base-level residential and business customers will see automatic upgrades to their speeds with no price increases, the company said. For example, residential customers who received 25 megabits per second today will upgrade to 50 mbps; business customers who receive 100 mbps will jump to 250 mbps.
Though 1-gig service will be available, customers will have the option of tiered-pricing plans. "We're going to keep tiered pricing," Hussman said. "People who need less will pay less; they can pay for whatever they need."
White County Cable is the original cable franchisee for the area, Hussman said, adding the he hopes its legacy of service as well as its ownership as an Arkansas company will keep customers from straying to competitors as they enter the area.
The rural area will eventually receive 5G service from wireless providers as well as broadband offerings from new entrants who benefit from federal subsidies. The Federal Communications Commission offers subsidies to companies that enter rural markets to offer broadband service for the first time.
"We have been committed to Arkansas communities for over half a century," Hussman added. "Our service is going to be second to none and we hope the citizens of White County and Searcy will prefer to do business with an Arkansas company."
Area residents -- especially students -- will welcome the news, said County Judge Michael Lincoln.
"We are just ecstatic that we are on the verge of getting a reliable broadband service that will reach our diverse population and support our students," Lincoln said.
White County, the state's second-largest county in terms of landmass, has presented challenges for companies trying to deliver reliable broadband service because its topography includes hills and delta, Lincoln said.
"Many of our kids today have to take their devices and drive around to find a hot spot for service," Lincoln said. "This will give them a more reliable service they can count on and use at home."