Windstream Holdings Inc. announced Tuesday that it will expand broadband service across Grant County as part of an $18 million project, the first of several rural Arkansas high-speed internet build-outs the Little Rock company has planned over the next five years.
Expansion in areas around Sheridan will deliver gigabit-speed fiber service to about 6,380 rural homes and businesses in the county. Officials announced Tuesday that the state will contribute $10.8 million to the project and Windstream will invest $7.2 million.
Construction will begin this month and completion is expected in the spring.
“This expansion is going to be critical to the future growth of Grant County,” County Judge Randy Pruitt said Tuesday. “Broadband has been a big need in our area and this will help with remote learning opportunities for our students and with telemedicine for families.”
Grant County is one of seven rural broadband expansions across Arkansas that Windstream is planning with total investments reaching $63.5 million. The company will invest $17.3 million and the remainder will be kicked in by the state as part of the federal stimulus money it receives to combat the coronavirus.
The investment will expand broadband to more than 15,100 homes and businesses in Arkansas, Windstream chief executive Tony Thomas said Tuesday in announcing the overall initiative, which will include six other counties: Carroll, Faulkner, Perry, Searcy, Sevier and Van Buren.
“Events like this energize us because we know the impact that we will have in the communities we serve,” Thomas said at the event in the lobby of the Sheridan High School gymnasium.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr joined Thomas for the announcement. The governor noted that Arkansas’ broadband investments are administered through the Arkansas Rural Connect program, which was established before the pandemic and has made about $279 million available for high-speed internet projects. “The reason is that no community should be left behind,” Hutchinson said in explaining the state’s commitment to deliver broadband to rural areas.
The state’s $10.8 million investment in the Grant County expansion is the single-largest broadband contribution in the state, the governor said. “What this simply means is more access to information, more opportunity in the future for our young people and [more] job opportunities,” Hutchinson added.
BroadbandNow, an organization that monitors broadband availability across the U.S., says Arkansas ranks 41st in access to high-speed internet, which is defined as providing download speed of at least 25 megabits per second. About 80% of Grant County has access to high-speed service today, according to BroadbandNow.
About 11.7% of Arkansans have access to fiber internet services, which is less than half of the national average of 25% of consumers with access to fiber internet, BroadbandNow reports.
Arkansas is making progress and has moved up from ranking dead last in availability, Carr said Tuesday.
“It’s very unique what you have in place right now in Arkansas,” Carr said. “You have a governor who has positioned this state ahead of the curve when it comes to federal and state funding that should be coming down the pipeline to get more internet connections built out.”
Windstream, a privately held communications and software provider, has said that it plans to invest $2 billion to expand broadband to customers in its 18-state footprint over the next five years.